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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Elusive Meanings

Art Review

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"Are you angry or are you boring?" asks one of the pieces included in the new “Gilbert & George” exhibit at the Milwaukee Art Museum (MAM). The idea that nothing worthwhile exists outside these two states might explain why the work of the artistic duo has become progressively larger and louder over time, often resorting to such malodorous mediums as feces, sperm and spit. Is this preponderance of bodily fluids meant as an avowal of the artists' own mortality or simply a desperate attempt to counter the stultifying effects of old age and withered rebellion? The answer, like the meaning of their work, remains elusive.

  When studying their work, obeisant critics and curators tell us to leave our reservations—and our thinking caps—at the door, and rely instead on our primary instincts. In truth, their work leaves us little other choice. Of the 40 pieces included in the exhibit, few are smaller than 6 feet squared, and the combination of their scale, frenetic content and rigid compartmentalization creates the same dizzying effect as flicking rapidly through TV channels with a remote. (Strangely the latter is never accredited with the same cathartic possibilities some attribute to the work of Gilbert and George.)

  Nevertheless, their art speaks to the rapid-fire culture in which we live. Their pictures flatten out human emotion, religion, culture and history into a glossy veneer from which the intellect is barred and only intuition can pierce. In the past the artists have claimed that their work contains a human depth lacking in other artwork, yet their most remarkable achievement is their systematic eradication of this depth. 

  Over the years Gilbert and George have willfully blurred the distinction between an artist's public and private persona more completely than any other artist, even surpassing the sensationalist antics of Jeff Koons and Tracy Emin through the sheer magnitude of their undertaking: an entire life devoted to self-parody. Though often placed within the tradition of London artists like Hogarth and Sickert, their correct milieu is British popular culture, particularly the strain of self-satire best personified by the bigoted TV persona of Alf Garnett in the '60s, or later by Ali G.

  Seeing the range of their work even in the relatively modest MAM exhibit reveals the artists’ progression from real beings into icons. They hover like impotent angels in The Alcoholic, their faces betraying concern for the wretchedness of mortal existence. Deadboards No. 7 reveals the artists standing about forlornly in a Spartan interior that contrasts with their formal attire and highlights their discomfort and alienation. In Balls we see their gradual though somewhat stylized descent into inebriation. Later we see their humanity and artistic hand recede behind grinning masks that ape emotions and seamless computer-generated visual tricks. In Shitted they crouch like grimacing gargoyles bookending the image of their own excrement. In Apostasia they tower like male caryatids holding back a tide of graffiti tags, their expressions hardening into a severe and impenetrable stare. Their features are swapped and distorted, their excretions and bodily fluids magnified; yet, despite confronting us with the mundane matter of which they (and we) are made, they remain forever out of reach. 

  A critic once stated that Gilbert and George's final great act would be to die together. Looking about this exhibit one realizes their self-destruction is ever present. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that in Bomb, the final piece of the exhibit, the artists resemble effigies guarding their own tombs.