Gilbert & George, London Pictures @Lehmann Maupin and Sonnabend

JTF (just the facts): A total of 66 multi-image works spread across 3 gallery venues. Each mixed-media work is made up a grid of individual images hung edge to edge, each framed in black and unmatted. The works range in size from 4 panels (2×2, sized 60×50 in total) to 36 panels (4×9, sized 119×225 in total). All of the works are unique and were made in 2011. A catalog of of all 292 of the works in this London Pictures series was recently published by Hurtwood Press (here) and is available from the galleries for $30. (Installation shots at right, from all three galleries.)

For each of the venues below, I have used the panel configuration as the method for tallying the number of works on view (in parentheses):

Lehmann Maupin Chrystie Street (18)

Front Room

2×2 (1), 4×4 (1), 5×4 (1)

Main Space

4×4 (3), 4×6 (4), 4×9 (2)

Upstairs Room

2×2 (6)

Lehmann Maupin West 26th Street (23)

Main Space

3×3 (2), 3×4 (5), 3×6 (2), 4×6 (4)

Back Room

2×2 (6), 2×3 (4)

Sonnabend (25)

Side Front Room 1

2×2 (2), 2×3 (1), 3×5 (1), 3×6 (1)

Side Front Room 2

2×2 (1), 3×4 (2), 3×6 (1)

Entry Room

2×2 (1)

Back Center Room

2×2 (2), 2×4 (1), 3×4 (1)

Back Left Room

2×3 (3), 3×3 (2)

Back Right Room

2×2 (2), 2×4 (1), 3×3 (2), 3×5 (1)

Comments/Context: Gilbert and George’s sprawling new series London Pictures is really the final outcome of a rigorously academic linguistics study, delivered in the form of contemporary art. It is a meticulous and exhaustive examination of words and their charged relationships in our attention starved modern culture, thrown back at us in carefully ordered groups of shouting, hysterical headlines from the tabloid press. Spread across three galleries here in New York (and countless others across the globe from London to Hong Kong), the works are a taxonomy of urban horrors, collated and ordered into surprisingly universal patterns.

The back story to these pictures starts with the tearsheets found displayed outside newsstands across London. Gilbert and George managed to discretely steal a total of 3712 of these disposable posters over the period of several years, providing them with the raw material for their further sorting and classification of subjects and key phrases. The resulting clusters of common topics tell the story of 21st century urban life, with an eye for the shock factor that catches eyes and sells papers. Citizens are STABBED, HANGED, KNIFED, and MURDERED, while a parade of troublemakers and undesirables run rampant: ADDICT, MUGGER, PLAYBOY, BANKER, BURGLAR, RAPIST, GUNMAN, HOOKER, KILLER, DRUNK. TERROR, SEX and DEATH are never far behind (see the entire list in the installation shot from Sonnabend above). Displayed in large block letters and highlighted in vibrant red, these repetitive words and phrases dominate the artworks, the rest of the text (in black) fading into the background. The effect is both initially startling and ultimately dulling, as the weight of the text piles up.

The black and white photographic images that lie behind the graphic design elements are often patterned or kaleidoscopic, but in a supremely unassuming manner. Tree limbs and brick paving provide angled patterns, while rows of faceless windows, sidewalks, and car reflections are distorted by fish eye lenses. Gilbert and George appear as peach-faced, dapper-suited characters, like grim pedestrians on the street. And the profile of the queen (taken from various coins) makes an appearance in the corner of each work, hovering over the messiness of life with stiff upper lip formality. But all of this imagery is secondary to the bold overlaid text, which relentlessly pounds the viewer into submission.

I visited all three NY venues for this mega-show, and there is certainly a sense that once you have seen a few of these works, you’ve seen them all. This is entirely a function of visual overstimulation; seen as stand alone works, these will all pop off the wall, but when seen together over and over again, they quickly lose their punch – the shocking is no longer so urgent once you’ve seen it a dozen times, which is perhaps an apt reflection of our media saturated lives. In any case, if you’re only going to visit one of the three spaces, I’d suggest going to Lehmann Maupin’s Chrystie Street venue, as it has both the largest grids its towering main gallery, as well as a selection of the small grids upstairs, so you can see the whole breadth of the project in one place.

In the end, I like the mix of appalling truth and the can’t-make-this-stuff-up wackiness that is found in these grids of words. Gilbert and George have reminded us how the odious and the offensive have become everyday entertainment, and how commonplace and universal these tawdry tales really are. They have mapped the sensational, dumbed-down vocabulary of big city living, exposing the lurid extremes that we now take for granted.

Collector’s POV: The works in these shows range in price from £50000 for the smallest 2×2 grids to £160000 for the largest 4×9 grids. Using an average selling price of £75000, the 292 works in the full series represent roughly £21900000 of primary market value; collectors should get used to seeing these works, as they are likely to become a fixture in the secondary markets for years to come. In general, works by Gilbert & George can be found at auction with regularity at this point, mostly in Contemporary Art sales as opposed to Photographs sales. Prices for their multi-panel works have ranged between roughly $50000 and $900000 in the past decade, with a few single image or editioned works at lower prices.

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