Gilbert & George
Jack Freak Pictures
10 September 2009 — 31 October 2009
GILBERT & GEORGE
THE JACK FREAK PICTURES
“London – cathedral of black bones… where streets glint, grudgingly, like shabby coins, and, much pummelled, the body’s putty sags..”
Epic and intent, twilit, garish, eerie, manic and brash; a swarming maelstrom of pattern, image, detail and colour, yet filled with a profound and mysterious stillness, the ‘Jack Freak Pictures’ comprise the single largest group of pictures that Gilbert & George have ever made. It is a monumental presentation of works, at once thematically episodic, confluent in motif and temper, and densely layered with emotional meaning.
One pictorial element, however, the red, white and blue design of the Union Jack flag, (itself an absract, geometric pattern) appears to dominate this vivid and disquieting group. Strident, even jocular, this internationally recognized symbol, in all its connotations, from national pride and pageantry to pop cultural cool and civic disobedience, transmits its resonance across a myriad social and cultural frequencies. Its historic and symbolic presence serves as both heart and spine of the ‘Jack Freak Pictures’, at once declamatory, iconic, ambiguous and absurd.
Over the last five decades, the Union Jack has been borrowed by the slippery currents of sub-culture to represent modern fashionability as much as aggressive modern nationalism; an iconic pattern, therefore, that has been both rendered serially meaningless and weighed down with impassioned emotional investment. It is seen as a symbol of both law and lawlessness, jubilation and threat; at once frowned upon by liberals affronted by notions of traditional patriotism, and claimed by populists as the rallying emblem of national pride. Gilbert & George specify none of these meanings, but allow the pattern to maintain its own rhetoric (or silence), as it becomes in these pictures both ubiquitous and steeped in ambiguity – the ceremonial plumage of a modern mob, or an enduring emblem of nationhood, through which an individual might commune with a greater sense of purpose and identity.
And in this there might also be a melancholy, and a sense of purpose turned to parody, and pomp to beligerence – “Get there if you can,” wrote W.H. Auden in 1936, “and see the land you once were proud to own.” ‘Jack Freak’, in the pictorial etymology described through this group of pictures, might ultimately be a name for the vexed and vertiginous experience of modern man, in which national identity and personal identity become at once a multi-faceted reflection of one another, and an urban folk loric pantomime of passions and intentions: a cavort in the face of a volatile and fundamentalist future.
Like all of the art that Gilbert & George have created since first meeting, in London, in 1967, these ‘Jack Freak Pictures’ bring a modern world to life, in which Gilbert & George themselves are both artist and art: the creators and inhabitants of a vast, wild cosmology, in which the most basic and profound values of human existence are described in a panoply of signs, patterns, scenes, texts, words and attitudes – all of which can be found on the streets of any city in the world, drawn from a common language of quotidian life.
In the densely layered and nuanced succession of scenes, moods, events and feelings that these ‘Jack Freak Pictures’ describe, they have the emotional and narrative scope of a great novel of contemporary life, in all its entrenched traditions, social vigour, religious and civic conformities. Yet these values – we might term them in one sense to be the values of nationhood – are presented by Gilbert & George as they take their shape and meaning within the inner, spiritual, complex and instinctive world of an individual’s feelings and emotions. This exploration of the inner human world – a strange, fervid, psychic landscape – has always been central to the art of the Gilbert & George. Indeed, their entire ambition and achievement as artists has been to describe the intense, universal experience of being alive in the modern world – both as that experience becomes fluid between the ideological and financial conventions of society; and as this parallel, yet equally real world of the human spirit, in all its hopes, fears, desires and inner turbulence.
As throughout their art, Gilbert & George have identified the holistic constitution of ‘nationhood’ – as the sense of country might not simply shape an individual or a society, but as an individual might think of themselves as a state, with its own laws, pride and history – so within the multi-levelled, mysterious world of the ‘Jack Freak Pictures’ there is a direct address to the values of individual and social identity. The use of medals throughout this group of pictures – some of which are engraved to specific individuals, others of which are generic and anonymous – seems in each case to bring a moment of pride to life. Medals for dancing or running or swimming or gymnastics, many of which were engraved or presented during the early years of the last century, seem each to tell a story – to be their own novella within the vast novel of the ‘Jack Freak Pictures’. The words and scenes that many of these medals depict have their own visual and textual poetry, made all the more astute and memorable for occurring with a medium which might be considered humble, or marginal, yet is representative of heightened or noble sentiment.
In ‘Street Party’, for example, we see Gilbert & George standing in identical positions (each with their right hand pressed against their chest) on an intersection of city streets which appear to be decorated with a vast Union Jack design. The scene is bracketed on either side by eight gold coloured medals, each depicting a different sport – boxers and gymnasts, runners and scouts. They evoke an older world, to the contemporary viewer – of formality, and of robust, late Victorian masculine ideals of health, strength, sportsmanship and pride in achievement. In ‘Dating’ we see medals for singing, ‘attendance’, cricket, sports gymnastics, and even ‘pantomime’ (presented to Master Alec French, for the year 1884 – 1885). Within this display of medals, set upon what seems to be a luxuriant bed of rippling satin (again patterned with the Union Jack), we see Gilbert & George transformed into the heads and swollen torsos of intense Cyclopian robots – the edges of their bodies seeming machine cut, and their forms patterned red, white and blue.
This collision of ornate, archaic forms, their names and titles as morally encoded as they are proudly struck, with the sinister, intently staring futuristic sentinels, creates a sense of brooding ceremony. The monstrous representations of Gilbert & George possess their own unknowable formality (their hands in seemingly symbolic gestures, for example), while the surrounding medals possess the same pictorial and compositional agency as the amulets and charms used by the artists in their ‘Sonofagod’ pictures of 2006. The result is an imagery that is at once ancient and modern – as redolent of lingering nineteenth century aesthetics and sentiments, as it is filled with inhuman presence and portent.
In ‘Hecatomb’, we see Gilbert & George photographed in their ‘normal’ figurative state, standing on the left and right of both their mutated selves and six extravangantly designed medals. Here, the artists seem more like witnesses or seers – the viewer might well be reminded of the manner in which the artists took their place in earlier, intensely urban pictures, such as the ‘The Dirty Words Pictures 1977’, or their ‘Nine Dark Pictures’ of 2002. Their expressions are both concentrated yet impassive – watchers of the human condition. There is a stream of intense emotion which runs throughout the art of Gilbert & George (in their use of personal advertisments, for example, in the ‘New Horny Pictures’ (2001)) wherein the identities and names of strangers acquire a poignancy which speaks of the passage of time, and the great democracy of mortality.
The sheer scale of the ‘Jack Freak Pictures’, and the singularity of the pictorial elements and motifs from which they are composed, has enabled Gilbert & George to animate a vision of the human experience that might be seen as one vast work, composed of a multiplicity of individual pictures. Throughout their earlier works – not least their film ‘The World Of Gilbert & George’ (1981) – Gilbert & George have identified the role of nationhood within their vision of the modern world, and through this the historic and historical relationship between state and religion, as one of the founding tenets of social organization. And within this observation, as this new group of pictures conveys with such force and eloquence, Gilbert & George have described the ambiguities of nationhood and pride: the short distance between conformity to patriotism and social conditioning, for example; and the appropriation of emblems of nationhood and national pride as an aggressive badge of honour, denoting a confrontational fundamentalism.
Yet this chemistry of the image, which Gilbert & George have pioneered throughout their art, and now brought to a new state of synthesis, is also based upon the acknowledgement of our historical reading (and mis-reading) of pictorial or textual signs and images. In their art, Gilbert & George both embody and oversee the constant and timeless translation of individual values and feelings, from Innocence to Experience – from human vulnerability to the depiction of themselves (as in ‘Gold Jack’ (2008), for example, or ‘Up The Wall’ (2008), to name but two), as monstrously inhuman, robotic or marionette like, absorbed into the very pictorial surface of their art, there to be transformed into semi-human signage, once and for all living sculptures.
The ‘Jack Freak Pictures’ are amongst the most iconic, philosophically astute and visually violent works that Gilbert & George have ever created, achieving a meticulous balance between dazzling pictorial complexity and the precisely honed use of comparatively few individual elements. Within this massive group of pictures, in all their sumptuous, densely patterned, intricate evocation of atmosphere and emotion, the principal pictorial elements are remarkably few: medals and amulets, trees and foilage, the street map of East London, brickwork, the design of the Union Jack flag, the urban street, and Gilbert & George themselves.
From this rigorously refined set of elements, Gilbert & George have then created within the ‘Jack Freak Pictures’ an equally forceful and contained group of main motifs: the Union Jack (as shown in ‘Horn Jack’, ‘GB’, ‘De Britt’, and ‘Jacksie’); the use of circles (as seen in ‘Britishers’, ‘Briticism’, ‘Britainers’ and ‘British Isles’); the rosaceous motif (as in ‘Sap’, ‘Hide’, ‘Astrol’, and ‘Abode’); the bare tree (as seen in ‘Fuck Ya All’, ‘Lantern Bugs’ and ‘Hoar’); and lastly what might be termed ‘the gaze’, in which we see the eyes of Gilbert & George, most often mutated into an unnaturally large and limpid shape, staring with intent, fear, wariness or vacancy – as shown to such disquieting extent in ‘Sunni’,
‘School Playground’ and ‘Celestial Equator’.
Out of these elements and motifs, Gilbert & George have created countless intersections and inter-relationships – thus granting the ‘Jack Freak Pictures’ a vastness, depth and complexity, while simultaneously maintaining a single and singular sense of mood and atmosphere. In this the ‘Jack Freak Pictures’ comprise their own world, with its own distinctive climate of emotions, the nature of which is described by the artists in what might be seen as endlessly self-replicating patterns and themes.
As the ‘Jack Freak Pictures’, therefore, present one of the most ambitious groups of works that Gilbert & George have made – in terms of both subject matter and composition – they likewise display a bravura aesthetic refinement and artistic discipline. Gilbert & George take their place within the work in a similarly intense series of forms: as themselves, their faces and bodies seen figuratively (as in ‘Hecatomb’, for example); as monsters (‘We Swear’, ‘Floreat’, ‘Jesus Jack’); in heavily patterned suits, reminiscent of those once worn by Music Hall entertainers and comedians (‘Down Among The Dustbins’, ‘Jeepers Creepers’); as what might be termed ‘flag men’, in which the artists appear literally composed of the Union Jack (‘Frigidarium’, ‘Bleeding Medals’, ‘Metal Jack’); as semi-arborescent (as shown in the grotesquerie of ‘Prize’ or ‘Shapla’; and finally – but of huge importance to this group of pictures – as dancers.
When the intersection – the seeming near liquification, into an endlessly mutating, melding and sub-dividing chemistry – of these elements, motifs, and pictorial avatars of the artists, achieves its most condensed and violent form (as seen in ‘Headstars’, ‘Platanus’ or ‘Tek Yol’), the pictures acquire a near abstract quality, encoded with a delicate, lace-like tracery – as though the spittal of the mutated forms had petrified. Gilbert & George, shape shifting through the world brought to life by their art, appear and re-appear in different guises and forms, from sombre, human inscrutability, to becoming multiplex, horrifically limbed and monstrously featured entities – in part science fictional, in part supernatural.
While the world described and evoked by their art is rooted firmly and without compromise in modern reality, Gilbert & George are visionary artists in the lineage of William Blake. Landscape is at once real, spiritual and allegorical: a moral state of nature as much as a moral diagnosis of the individual within society, and the journey of that individual – their soul’s journey – through the experiences common to the human condition. In this, simple acts and common situations can and do assume a greater meaning and spiritual dimension; at the same time, nature is on one level charged with near magical significance, as emblem.
One of the ‘Jack Freak Pictures’, titled ‘It Shall Be Written’, is filled with such mystery. Gilbert & George are seen on vivid green grass, dressed in primary coloured suits (George’s yellow, Gilbert’s red) which are patterened with graffiti and tags: ‘Caliper Boy’, ‘I NEED A RIOT’, ‘God’. Both are looking backwards over their shoulders, as though towards the viewer; George makes eye contact, whereas Gilbert looks slightly away. It appears that they are stepping awkwardly into the bright green leaves of a shrubbery; it is as though the artists may be pushing through some membrane or divide that separates different worlds or states of being. At the same time, there is the ambiguity that they may simply be hiding in the midst of some covert activity. The picture – in conjunction with the legalistic or Biblical soleminity of its title – seems articulate of warning or prophecy, yet at the same time remains mute.
This picture finds it urban equivalent, perhaps, in ‘Up The Wall’, in which heavily stylised figures of Gilbert & George (their bodies and faces rendered featureless and wooden in appearance), dressed in ‘Union Jack’ suits, appear to be attempting to climb a high brick wall, with a tagged signature, reflected down a central column of brick shaped Union Jacks, running just above the artists’ heads. Again Gilbert & George are depictedly as awkwardly climbing – one foot raised from the ground.
The ‘Jack Freak Pictures’ abound with such repetitions and variations on pictorial elements and motifs; and thus we will find Gilbert & George in ‘Cancan’, ‘Stuff Religion’ and ‘Hecatomb’ (to name only three) in similar attitudes; this is in its turn relates to both the imprinting of the London street map with the pattern of the Union Jack, and, as we will see, the ‘dancing’ sequence of pictures within this group. Gilbert & George thus present themselves as both mannequin like, acting out gestures, and as bearers of meaning – as in ‘Stuff Religion’, in which their pose, and the Union Jack patterned halos around their heads, becomes a kind of cosmic music hall satire on organized religions.
As Malcolm Yorke has written of Blake, with reference to Blake’s ‘Annotations to Wordsworth’, “Nature for Blake was a symbol or it was nothing.” – a statement which likewise rings true in the art of Gilbert & George; Yorke again refers to Blake’s depictions of the human body and the human countenance, and the manner in which figures depict – almost in mime – exaggerated states of being: “…Blake adopted a highly stylised language of gesture and facial expression and slowly enlarged it to involve the whole body as he entwined his figures or hurled them up, down and across the pages of his books, all over-acting their ecstasies and anguish.”
Within the ‘Jack Freak Pictures’, we see Gilbert & George take their place in the works as massively stylised – and mostly, ironically, when they depict themselves in an unaltered, figurative state. Their very impassivity – their expressions of featurless, modern ‘normality’ – assumes an intensity and inscrutability that is eloquent of a heightened, portentous state: the soul in limbo, perhaps, or caught upon an unalterable course, one definition of which might be nothing more or less than mortality.
Since the very beginnings of their work together, Gilbert & George – often presumed to be the most urban and secular of artists – have worked ceaselessly with imagery from nature and religion. Some of their earliest large drawings and postal sculptures were concerned with an experience of the countryside, while the iconography of the church, and of religious services, has been a constant element throughout the art of Gilbert & George. The ‘Jack Freak Pictures’, and in particular those pictures within the group that are concerned with dancing, appear to convey a sense of paganism brought to the city, or of folk loric music hall, in which the artists – often depicted wearing brightly patterened and coloured suits – are seen sombre and unsmiling, but in attitudes of dancing.
‘Harvest Dance’ exemplifies this series of pictures. Their matching suits appearing vaudevillian, seemingly cut from fabric patterned with the Union Jack design of the British flag, Gilbert & George – the former’s countenance set and stern, the latter’s unsmiling and impassive – are seen, incongruously, in an attitude of dancing. Their dance has a rustic air, at once robust and formal – as though the dancers themselves are bound by instinct, tradition or duty to an ancient rite. Each carries a twig with seed pods; while at their feet are what seems like ripe corn – the golden hue of which surrounds the bodies of the dancers like an aura, suffusing their hands and faces. The setting for the dance is modern and urban: immediately behind Gilbert & George is an old fence of spear headed railings – also golden, as though, Midas like, everything touched by Gilbert & George immediately turns to gold.
‘Pyre Dance’, ‘War Dance’, ‘Union Wall Dance’, ‘Salvation Army Dance’, and ‘Hoity Toity’ maintain this strange, trance like air. As dancing is common to all human settlements, and has existed as a universal form of personal and social expression for thousands of years, so in the ‘Jack Freak Pictures’ we see Gilbert & George – often looking like music hall entertainers – engaged in what seems like ritual performance of simple steps. One might think of these ‘dance’ pictures as related to the seminal ‘Underneath The Arches’ (1969) or ‘Red Boxers’ (1975) sculptures, in which movement or performance becomes trance-like. At the same time, in ‘Nettle Dance’, for example, Gilbert & George appear like a song-and-dance duo – but their expressions are entirely ambiguous. They might be entertainers, and yet their countenance is fixed, stern and vacant. (In John Osborne’s play ‘The Entertainer’ (1957), the failing variety performer Archie Rice describes his eyes as ‘dead’ beneath his stage make-up and jaunty, irascible persona. Likewise, on one level, Gilbert & George contrast the activity of dancing, in extravagant costume, with a kind of cultural or cosmic senility.)
The ‘Jack Freak Pictures’ take their place in the collected works of Gilbert & George as both a massive consolidation of the theme and feelings which they have explored in their art for over forty years, and a pioneering advance into new emotional territories. They possess a magical, ceremonial air, at once febrile, violent, and filled with ambiguous pageantry – as though national pomp were being infected by moral panic, in the older, classical mythological sense, that the god Pan, to scatter his enemies, would let out a mighty yell.
Such a confluence of anxiety and aggression, within which Gilbert & George become simultaneously victim and monster – stooges to cosmic music hall, sleepless sentinels on empty city streets, crazy-eyed spheroid heads, palely radiant with silver aureola, floating between leafless branches – is the humid climate of the ‘Jack Freak Pictures’. An encyclopaedia of altered states: the lucid dreams of shamanic vaudevillians, drawn from the streets of East London.