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Gilbert and George: Major Exhibition - Tate Modern

Gilbert & George, Death Hope Life Fear 1984 l Tate © the artists

Review by James Haddrell

GILBERT and George: Major Exhibition is the largest retrospective of any artist to be held at Tate Modern and follows the artists from their earliest charcoal landscapes and so-called drinking sculptures, through their best known photo montages to the most recent works, produced in response to the media frenzy unleashed by the 7/7 London bombings.

Love them or hate them, and there are plenty of people who fall into each of those categories, Gilbert and George, always dapper in their sharp suits, purveyors of expletives laced with a laconic sense of humour, modern day vaudevillians with more than a whiff of Morecambe and Wise, have become something of a national institution.

Since meeting on the sculpture course at St Martin’s School of Art, where they promptly threw out accepted notions of sculpture in favour of painting themselves silver and miming to Flanagan and Allen, the duo have built a reputation for primary coloured shock tactics.

For all this, however, the attraction of the current retrospective at Tate Modern is the opportunity to see the earlier, less well known works that set them on their current path.

In mounting such an ambitious exhibition, which begins before you walk through the doors to the gallery space, spilling out into the concourse, the curators don’t make it easy to enjoy the smaller works.

On one side of the stair well are the quiet, whimsical pieces from the 60s, while facing them is a collection of large scale, brightly coloured new works based on the London bombings.

Even with your back to the new works, facing the primarily black and white drinking sculptures – collections of small framed photographs showing the artists, and anything around them which caught their eye, inebriated in a pub – you are aware of the overbearing presence behind you.

It may sum up in a single room the distance which the artists have come since standing on a table singing Underneath the Arches, but it does detract from the pleasure of the earlier works.

There are other odd anachronisms in the primarily chronological exhibition – sets of work conceived together but displayed apart; sets of work from which only selected pieces are presented; the iconic DEATH HOPE LIFE FEAR series from the eighties displayed among much less impressive works from a decade later – but generally the exhibition follows their journey from college days to Tate retrospective.

The works from the seventies are by turns moody, haunting and angry. When they stand in empty rooms the images take on the shadowy look of film-noir.

When they photograph the explicit graffiti and the young men on the streets of east London, there’s a palpable feeling of violence undercutting the works, a violence in which they seem somehow complicit. It was during this period that they allowed the idea to surface that they supported fascism. Whether they did or not, and as everything they do is part of the G&G performance we can never know, there is an uncomfortable vibrancy to these works.

Entering the eighties the works become much more colourful, the technique changes, and as a result so does the impact. There are selected large scale works – the already mentioned DEATH HOPE LIFE FEAR series is a good example – where the sheer size, colour and decorative quality turns them into celebrations of art itself, but these are uncommon.

It’s more often the case that the anger and discomfort of the earlier work is diluted by the decorative quality. The beautiful young men who represented the seedier side of east London life are now replaced by Benetton-style, mock revolutionary youths, neither funny enough nor disturbing enough to make much impact.

Over the last few years the duo have engaged with more specific contemporary issues – the general engagement with religion or sexuality have been replaced with time specific hoodies and bombings – and at the same time the artists’ technique has changed.

Instead of hand coloured photographs they now work on computer, morphing the figures into hall-of-mirrors grotesqueries.

However, the best of their work relies on the non-specific, the unspoken undercurrents of violence, the distortions of drunkenness, and ultimately, the non-specificity of the artists themselves.

Are they or have they ever been fascists? What is their relationship with the young men featured in their work? Are they benevolent artists or predatory voyeurs?

The G&G experience is at its best when you don’t know where you are, when you are unsettled by too many questions, and of late, it seems, their work simply contains too many answers.

Picture caption: Gilbert & George, Death Hope Life Fear 1984 Tate © the artists

Tate Modern, Bankside, London SE1 9TG
020 7887 8888; www.tate.org.uk
Sunday-Thursday 10am–6pm; Friday-Saturday 10am-10pm
Tickets: £10, concessions £8