History Centre Heroes: Gilbert and George

The Plymouth Art Weekender takes place at the end of this week (23 to 25 September 2016) and the History Centre will feature an exciting programme of contemporary visual art, so we’re using this week’s blog post to highlight a contemporary artist who hails from Plymouth.

George Passmore was born in Plymouth on 8 January 1942. Today he is best known as one half of Gilbert and George. Together with Gilbert Proesch (b. 17 September 1943 in Italy) he is famous for his distinctive and highly formal appearance and manner and brightly coloured graphic-style photo-based artworks.

Artists Make Faces 2013
We were lucky enough to be able to feature a work by Gilbert and George (the yellow and black work on the left of this image) in our 2013 ‘Artists Make Faces’ exhibition. ‘Exhausted’ (1980) came to us on loan from the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.

Both men studied art in their formative years – George at Dartington College of Art and the Oxford School of Art. They first met on 25 September 1967 while studying sculpture at Saint Martin’s School of Art. They claim they came together because George was the only person who could understand Gilbert’s rather poorly-spoken English at the time. In a 2002 interview with the Daily Telegraph, they said: “it was love at first sight”.

Since 1969 they have lived in the Spitalfields area of East London – a location that has inspired much of their work. According to George: “Nothing happens in the world that doesn’t happen in the East End.”

Their early work centered around performance and the work that initially established their reputation was created while they were still students. ‘The Singing Sculpture’ was first performed at the Nigel Greenwood Gallery in 1969-1970. Gilbert and George covered their heads and hands in multi-coloured metalised powders and stood on a table while they sang and moved to a recording of Flanagan and Allen’s song “Underneath the Arches”. Sometimes they did this for a day at a time. The suits they wore for the performance became a sort of uniform for them.

Gilbert and George then went on to experiment with video, photography and drawing. In the early 1970s they started producing black-and-white photographic assemblages. In the late 1970s they began to develop gridlike photo combinations. During the early 1980s, they began to add a range of bright colors to their photographs, creating a more stylised and cartoonlike appearance.

The largest series of works created by them is known as the ‘Jack Freak Pictures’ in which the Union Jack and Gilbert and George are the two dominant images – appearing contorted, abstracted, and sometimes complete. The entire series is set in the East End of London as indicated by flags, maps, street signs, graffiti, brickwork and foliage that can be found in the area. The works have been described as ‘among their most iconic and violent’.

Gilbert and George (George is on the left) at a 2009 press conference in Berlin to discuss a solo exhibition of their "Jack Freak Pictures".
Gilbert and George (George is on the left) at a 2009 press conference in Berlin to discuss a solo exhibition of their “Jack Freak Pictures”.

At times they have received criticism, particularly for what people perceive as them glamourising some of the ‘rougher types’ of London’s East End. Some of their work has also attracted media attention because of the inclusion of nudity, depictions of sexual acts and bodily fluids. Some of the titles of their works have also courted controversy: “Naked Shit Pictures” (1994) and “Sonofagod Pictures” (2005).

However, they have also received much acclaim with extensive solo exhibitions in the UK, USA, France, Holland, Switzerland, Germany, Spain, Austria, Denmark, Russia and China; numerous Honorary Doctorates from academic institutions including Plymouth University; and awards such as the Special International Award, the South Bank Award and the Lorenzo il Magnifico Award. In 1986 they won the Turner Prize which is widely considered to be the UK’s most prestigious contemporary art award. In 2005 they represented the UK at prestigious international art exhibition, the Venice Biennale.

Gilbert and George
The Plymouth University graduation ceremony in 2013 where Honorary Doctorates were presented to Gilbert and George. Image from Culture24 © Alan Stewart.

By placing themselves into their work Gilbert and George are not only the creators of their art but the art themselves. By using images mainly gathered from around their home their work has captured many different facets of the human experience: humour, emotion, rural and urban, sex, religion and patriotism. The works they’ve produced are an important part of Britain’s post-second world war conceptual art.

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