Monday, April 20, 2009

A Parody of Englishness as an Artistic Vantage Point

In the early 1970’s Gilbert & George, who had already for some time been presenting themselves as ‘Living Sculptures’, produced a number of works that showed them walking in idyllic English countryside. The majority of the work took the form of composite black and white photopieces hung in clusters; the photography looked dismally old fashioned and stagey; they wore Edwardian-looking suits and carried walking canes. The whole looked like amateur photographs of a bygone age: an illusion of a now vanished England.

The persona Gilbert and George adopted in these early works was part of a broad personal construct the artists were developing at that time, which fed into their lives and relentless promotions of their art. In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s they bombarded the art world with texts and announcement cards, most of which looked like invitations to a dance on a turn of the century cruise liner, or a Mayfair ball. They flirted with emblems of Government, and used symbols of Royalty and Freemasonary; cards for exhibitions urged the recipient do please get in touch, as though the card were an invitation to an Edwardian high-tea or the calling card of a bright young thing out of PG Wodehouse. They hand-signed their photopieces beneath a Royal crest, marking their joint signature with the year, as though each completed work were the passing of an act of Parliament; they used odd, stilted, over-enunciated syntax and overplayed politeness; a letter would look more like a note from the vicarage than a communiqué from within the contemporary art world; but perhaps this early distancing ensured their success; and all more interesting too when one considers the art world of that time.

But given they used themselves in so much of their work it is perhaps as though they needed to adopt the parody of Englishness to speak about the broader world,enclosing themselves in a protective construct that allowed them to keep their real personalities at a distance using the formality of manners; allowing them to begin to speak about difficult subjects.

To my mind the most successful of their works of this period were their first and last ever group of oil paintings –called simply The Paintings: they were a series of large triptychs carried out in 1971 of perhaps the sort of scenes one associates with the grand traditions of English art with the artists themselves in the mid-panels engaging with the landscape: leaning against a five-bar gate in relaxed, resigned pose or sitting in woodland; sometimes merely surveying the horizon, as though discovering alien territory for the first time - the mid-panels flanked by panels of foliage and landscape.

The Paintings have something of the quality of the amateur Sunday painter, as a painter one notices the colours are not quite right, perhaps the greens are too emerald, too hyper-real, and the colours look as though they are straight from the tubes, rather than developed in a way most professional painters would; they look a little like paint by numbers and were it not for the scale they would look like any picture one might find in a car boot sale; they are full of painterly errors, one even has a whip of dripped paint that flicks the air – but the mistake is left as is: the errors are accepted; it is as though Gilbert & George were intentionally concerning themselves with the unsophisticated, and while aping the traditions of English landscape painting in hamfisted fashion they are also challenging the proper painterly way of things; but the amateur intent lends the work a curious, disjointed strangeness; as though a non-artist were given a crash course in the romantic tradition then short-lived access to abandoned village and ordered to recreate what he found there.

We seem to be looking at the uncovering of a sensibility; there is a sense of glimpsed access to a parallel world, in much the same way as Martin Parr’s quietly invasive photographs of village fetes (up close and personal with the homemade jams); an investigation of the unsophisticated, the other. These works too seem to get close to a depiction of Middle England, or a Little England, that tells us all is perhaps not quite right. But are they are survey of a land that once was and is no more? A canny acknowledgement of a part of our history? Or are they a valid component of England as we know it?

Strangely, these works have only ever been exhibited twice, once in 1971, shortly after they were made, and once in the mid-1980’s. They remain sorely neglected and are not widely known; the paintings did not form part of the recent Gilbert & George show at the Tate and neither do they appear in either the original edition of the Complete Pictures or the updated edition for the Tate retrospective.

Perhaps this is because while the work uses an idea of England, and speaks of it, it also, in it’s painterliness, strongly references the English landscape tradition and while Gilbert and George are admirers of Constable, say, or Samuel Palmer, the referencing is perhaps more than the artists are comfortable with; in my view it would be typical of Gilbert & George to wish to edit their work of referencing of other art movements to keep the G&G story as uncluttered as possible for the viewer.