Gilbert & George: New Normal Pictures at White Cube Mason’s Yard
In the years following their first meeting (in 1967 at Central St Martin’s) Gilbert and George have woven themselves inexorably into the cultural fabric of London. Gilbert Prousch (born in the Dolomites, Italy in 1943) and George Passmore (born in Devon in 1942) have lived and worked collaboratively together ever since, adopting the moniker of “living sculptures”. It was their performance piece, The Singing Sculpture, performed at the Nigel Greenwood Gallery in 1970, that truly launched their career. This saw them covering their heads and hands in multi-coloured metalised powders and singing to Flanagan and Allen’s Underneath the Arches, while standing on a table. The formal suits they wore for that work set a sartorial tone they have not wavered from for over five decades, the artist (the two function as one) adopting a similarly formal manner.
Gilbert and George have long maintained that everything they do is their art, whilst subscribing to the doctrine that their “art is for all.” They have found inspiration from the East End streets where they live, reflecting on social issues and taboos. The latest exhibition at White Cube’s Mason’s Yard gallery reveals the duo again making London their canvas.
The 26 photo-based works are visualisations of their daily walks, mostly around their area of Spitalfields. Blazing with tinted colour – the vibrancy of the two men’s suits especially grabs the attention – they initially engender a sense of wry amusement. Much of this dissipates when the content hits home. Gilbert and George have never been averse to confronting the fundamental issues of existence and many of those themes feature in The New Normal series: violence, hope, fear, racial tension, patriotism, addiction and death.
These photomontages were mostly created at their home studio during lockdown last year, from photos taken prior to the pandemic. Describing their latest works as “grave, super-modern and disturbing”, Gilbert and George depict here the sometimes bleak realities of urban life. The topic of drugs use is a recurring theme; drugs bags feature several times, often blown up in size, as in Bagshot Court (2020). Another piece, Cashmere (2020) depicts drug bags layered with gun motifs, surely referencing the relationship between drugs dealing and violence. “Noz balloons” used for the inhaling of nitrous oxide (laughing gas) also appear in Ballooning (2020). Here the duo stand, each superimposed astride enormous blue and green balloons, tinted identically red of suit and yellow of tie. A similarly red-tinted row of Victorian houses fronted by garish yellow railings provides the backdrop. One friend of theirs is a troubled character called Daniel; the view from his flat at City Island is the background for the unsettling Woken (2020), featuring Gilbert and George leaning against “the tombstones of life”, sporting purple-tinted suits, flanked by a spade and shovel.
The two have spoken of how, in their younger days, they looked up while walking the streets, whereas in their later years their attention has been drawn downwards to the bags of rubbish, discarded mattresses and signs of drug use. Homelessness is another theme in New Normal Pictures. One sees them with George Crompton as he sits at the entrance of their house in Number Twelve. For years George, of no fixed abode, has come around for a chat and a mug of tea. Bag-men (2020) is a melancholic work featuring a homeless young man with closed eyes lying in a sleeping bag on the street, repeated as a mirror image. Gilbert and George chose to colour the grey sleeping bag with a single red stripe to suggest a flag of St George. In the context of the last year, which has seen the country ravaged by Covid-19, this could be read by the public as a compassionate tribute to the thousands lost to the epidemic in the UK. For all the precise locality of many of the works, the duo insist on a more universal interpretation. Although by chance Gilbert and George chose their title of New Normal before the emergence of the virus, many will struggle not to relate to the series from the perspective of the social isolation and unease of the past year. Maybe in time they will be seen to have marked a permanent shift in our sense of reality.
New Normal Pictures is at White Cube Mason’s Yard from 2nd March until 8th May 2021 (in person from 13th April by appointment only). For further information visit the exhibition’s website here.