For several years, Gilbert & George have been stealing Evening Standard posters from newsagents – one of them distracting the shopkeeper by buying a Mars bar while the other unfastens the headline of the day. They have carefully sifted and categorised 3,712 of these to create the LONDON PICTURES, their most extensive series to date, which is simultaneously on display at all three London galleries of White Cube.
Expansive in size and number, the works unfold a deadpan lexicon of urban life. In each digitally-collaged picture, a headline has been reprinted within a single rectangle of the artists’ familiar grid. A common word or phrase is highlighted in red – “DYING”, “CRACK”, “SCHOOLBOY”. Their technique shares something with that of automated word-searches, yet there is a persistent undercurrent of societal violence, too. In the catalogue, George explains: “The simple system when we were first sifting the posters was: nothing pleasant. And a friend said that surely there must be plenty of pleasant subjects - but they must be invisible to us, because I don't remember seeing any.”
Gilbert & George, Schools, 2011, 89 x 174 13/16 in. (226 x 444 cm); Courtesy of the artist and White Cube
Behind the veil of letters spreading across each work, we catch occasional glimpses of the streets around East London’s Brick Lane in ghostly black and white – a section of pavement, a slab of kerb, a Kingsmill lorry, a man on a bike. In every picture, Gilbert & George appear in the background, themselves like phantoms, with monochrome orange faces similar to the blanched tones of newsprint. Whether smirking or impassive, they mirror the baldness of the text, with its lack of context or specificity. In earlier self-portraits, Gilbert & George have appeared naked and screaming; here, they strike a pose of buttoned-up civility, while the headlines themselves become the naked, screaming subjects.
Formally, the LONDON PICTURES are monotonously repetitive. Adhering to the style of earlier works, they have the flat and schematic quality of a frieze. But there is nothing of the duo’s erstwhile humour, campery or quixotic romanticism. Each gallery more or less resembles the next, although the very largest works inhabit the mausoleum-like spaces of Bermondsey. But this dull repetition does reveal the way tabloids, serial as well as sensationalist, dramatise both the monotony and the excess of human behaviour.
Gilbert & George,Tube, 2011, 118 7/8 x 100 in. (302 x 254 cm); Courtesy of the artist and White Cube
Often, the LONDON PICTURES appear to satirise the way in which the media broadcasts society’s taboos. “PERVERT” repeated again and again bluntly reflects its odd stance of prurience and proscription. In many pictures, Gilbert & George play out this hypocritical prurience, peering out at us from behind proverbial net curtains.
There is a sense too of the stifling equivocation of all things and events. “STABBINGS” occur in Hackney, Mayfair, and Covent Garden alike. Money, sex, death – all are presented as elements within the relentless currency of life. The banal and the horrific sit side by side. Words crowd out images and obliterate the individual human subject. And so these pictures are in many ways about what isn't seen. Anonymising gobbets of text stand for episodes unwitnessed, perpetrators and victims who are for the most part, unknown.
Gone is the joie de vivre of the duo’s earlier works; the morbidity which has long glimmered within Gilbert & George’s work here explodes into view.
(Image at top right: Gilbert & George, Mystery, 2011, 59 7/16 x 74 13/16 in. [151 x 190 cm]; Courtesy of the Artist and White Cube)