I have not been an avid fan of modern arts; nevertheless it always strikes and intrigues me to learn about the abundant and colorful personal lives of modern artists. In a recent talk at Met about J. M. W. Turner, audiences gave laughs when they heard the anecdote that the first American collector of Turner called his works “a bit indistinct”. Such incomplete or even inaccurate stories just enrich the public’s view of artists and brought viewers closer to the canvas from a different dimension.
Gustave Courbet, in my mind, is the first painter that extensively and intentionally commercialized his privacy and made his personal life accessible to public critics as much as his works. In a recent book “The Most Arrogant Man in France: Gustave Courbet and the Nineteenth-Century Media Culture” by Chu, it was said that Gustave certainly knew being covered by the media was definitely an advantage compared to stay behind the canvas void of characters, even though the media spotlights may be focusing on controversy or scandals.
By the time of Andy Warhol, artists had raised their own personal life to such important career access that it not only entangled with their works, but also was the framework under which each individual work sprouts out bearing the birth mark of their lives.
Just as any works of art should not be cheaply copied to tarnish its freshness and originality, Gilbert and George have been carefully fending and preening their personal images so that they are enough covered with eccentricity or modernity but not to a degree to pierce through the mystery veil of their living as an art work. After all, great works of art rely on their inexplicability and multifaceted perspectives; a nailed definition means a loss in another possible angles. Gilbert and George call themselves living sculptures, yet although the sculptures have been greatly observed, no biographical material has come mature for such a long period of partnered career: Even more, the elimination of their surnames means their names have been modernized as an integral part of their works and such elimination actually carries additional interpretative potential for those who like to pry.
And like their personal lives which blur the difference between unostentatious reality and staged performance, Gilbert and George’s works as a whole are a striking contrast between ever-changing artistic probing and stylish consistency. Their techniques have changed constantly from black and white blocked projection photo making in the 1970’s to bold colored collages in 1980’s to nowadays digitalization from 2003 onward. And their topics reflect what were current in Britain such as urbanization, race issues or terrorism. On the other hand, they stick to their style for more than four decades. Being able to speak in the same language grammatically with possibly additional vocabulary for a variety of subjects may sound easy in life, but sticking to artistic principles in the flood of new styles/trends and even faster-paced changes in critics tones is admirable.
In some sense, the way they call their life a work of art is legitimate in that their photos contain their own portraiture in abstract or sensual settings. In B&W, they were young and avant-garde experimenters. In the eighties, they opted for vibrancy, somewhat tacky colors and acted godlike to look down at young, beautiful teens. And now they have become gloomier, darker, angrier, or in the most recently series alien to the new century. The upcoming show will not display their works chronically, but the sensual and psychological changes in how they present themselves into the large photos would touch those who can separate the most personal self projection and examination from the over-saturated stained-glassed surroundings.
Looking at the slides, it is hard for me to reconcile their works with detail-oriented photos. Even though they are largely made from techniques of photo making, they are graphic, collage in nature and chromatically distorted in colors, a meditative dichotomy between flattening in 2D and deepening in meanings. The monstrous scale and devoid of minutia of reality settings calls for attention and interpretation of every viewer.
When asked about how progressive and revolutionary they are in the history of modern art, Judy urged us to think what were popular and main-stream and what were not in the 1970’s . In the era of art market still being dominated by paintings, their probing into capturing their momentary life art into life size photos stripped off anything unnecessary must be explorative. Then I was stunned one of their images made in 1980’s: Twenty Eight Streets is a photo collaged with street signs from London, almost with a machine-like coolness. In the middle, however, there was a wall, captured with naturalism in B&W, but presented abstractly since it can only be seen through two human-shaped holes among all the street signs. It is as if someone has burned the machinery conformity to show the empty wall, though nothing special, radiating a sense of humanity, partly from the human shape holes, partly from the same warmth due to the organic yet accidental arrangement of film grains that was epitomized from Bresson and his contemporary. This is the only work that among all in the slideshow does not have their clear portraits. In the age of digitalization, they were late technique adopters. One thing for sure, they would probably never grasp the master level of photoshopping which is so rampantly taught in most of the design schools. But Gilbert and George, by presenting them in a film-styled hollow grayness, show their homage and root in traditional photograph art or art in general: In front of art, they are serious and thought-provoking, as they have been through their lifelong living performance; thus why would they be washed away by the advent of the new technology?