JTF (just the facts): A two venue show consisting of a total of 35 multi-panel color photographic works, framed in black and unmatted, and hung against white walls. A catalog of the exhibit is available from the gallery.
The following works are on view in the two venues:
536 West 22nd Street Gallery (series of 5 connected spaces)
- 23 mixed media works (4 to 28 panels), 2016, sized between 59×50 inches and 100×207 inches, unique
201 Chrystie Street Gallery (main gallery, entry area, and upstairs viewing room)
- 12 mixed media works (6 to 48 panels), 2016, sized between 59×74 inches and 150×237 inches, unique
(Installation shots of both venues below).
Comments/Context: From the very beginning of their artistic partnership some 50 years ago, the British duo of Gilbert & George have consistently employed photography in ways that have stood in between the norms of photography and contemporary art. Using their dapper suited selves as their primary performative subjects, they have successfully evolved a uniquely condensed multi-image format that has, over the passing decades, allowed them to construct complex narratives, social critiques, and aesthetic patterns out of ordered gatherings of individual pictures.
While their early 1970s efforts stayed closer to the straightforward traditions of performative photography, employing black and white images in regular arrays, their expressive layering and montage techniques soon pushed them into artistic areas all their own, their monochrome image fragments tinted with eye-popping primary colors. Along the way, they have actively and repeatedly explored the themes of religion, sexuality, and everyday life in London, and done so with bold and sometimes provocative openness.
Building on the clever newspaper headline wordplay of their previous large scale project the London Pictures, their newest series is yet another elaborate theme and variation exercise, this time exploring the central motif (and language) of beards. Gilbert & George have often used their deadpan faces as key components of their imagery, and in The Beard Pictures, their clean shaven chins more literally become the canvas for their visual experiments.
The whiskers in these images are fashioned from a dizzying array of objects, none of which is regular hair. Their improvised costume-like beards are made of images of jumbled piles of leaves, weeds, ornate metalwork, floral carvings, and dense nests of barbed wire, the leafy subjects tinted from the original monochrome to acidic greens, oranges, purples, and yellows.
And while a normal beard might hug the curves of its owner’s face, the beards that Gilbert & George have donned are whimsically and almost maniacally expansive. They extend downward and sideways, bend in curving shapes, create mirrored patterns, connect with each other, and intertwine into recognizable forms, like bibs, tongues, gates, bridges, candelabras, and trees. In a few cases, they even seem to take on a life of their own, as a nest of Medusa-like snakes.
These fantastical beards take center stage in each composition, but they are by no means the only graphical elements being used by the two artists. All of the works are organized with their two bodies standing side by side in tailored suits, as has been the case in many of their performative images over the years. With an echo of the red tints found in some of their early works, Gilbert & George each pulse in a deep red, their white eyes the only feature left untinted. As the series progresses, their bodies are variously resized from small to large, their limbs taken apart and reassembled, their ties and shoes mixed and matched, and their poses turned here and there like dolls.
These figures are then surrounded by thickly collaged images and symbols, recalling snippets of life in their London neighborhood. Circular postage stamps and dot matrix bus stop signs ground the images in contemporary locations and times, while coinage heads of kings and queens reach further back into celebrated history. Ads for escorts, phone sex, adult film extras, and pyschics then bring a seedier side of life into the compositions, these come hither invitations balanced by security system brands and alarm equipment, chain link fencing, and layers of barbed wire which actively attempt to keep these same influences out. The wire is a particularly malleable motif, and Gilbert & George revel in building it into dense screens, tightropes to walk on, religious crosses, alien antennae, and saucy devil’s horns jutting out from their heads. Anonymous views of crumbling architecture and construction rubble are also used as backdrops, bringing an air of ominous destruction to their playful visual parables.
But even with all of these excesses of caricature and layers of vibrantly noisy imagery, The Beard Pictures consistently left me underwhelmed. They are clever in their construction and expansive in their painstakingly iterative efforts to recombine the various themes and ideas, but most of the individual works feel flat, as if they have been drained of the electric transgressions that have energized so many of Gilbert & George’s previous works. The images filled with barbed wire and security systems had the best chance of pushing us beyond our comfort zone, but only a very few of the examples on view tap into a vein of raw emotion that feels genuine. More often, there is a sense of the two artists going through the motions, the cheeky FUCK OFF HIPSTERS vibe not hitting with much durable force.
In the end, The Beard Pictures are both full to the point of being overstuffed and yet surprisingly empty. Both exhibit venues thrum with visual stimuli, and the monumental scale of many of the works makes them fill the walls with a rich physical presence. But the beard idea should have been made into a handful of even sillier (or angrier) parodies and then swiftly left behind. Perhaps the ubiquity of goofy Snapchat filters has just made this kind of face play seem tired. When extended and expanded into this many variations, the simple motif collapses under its own weight, becoming decoration rather than incisive thought.
Collector’s POV: The works in this show range in price from £60000 to £195000, based on size. 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 $1800000 in the past decade, with a few single image or editioned works at lower prices.