Where have Gilbert & George been? Twenty-nine years ago they applied bronze makeup to their faces, donned proper business suits, clambered up on a tabletop pedestal and began to sing. A bit of old-fashioned British music hall theatrics had seeped into the more typically dour iconoclasm of Conceptual art. In that inaugural performance as "singing sculpture" at Sonnabend Gallery in New York's then-new SoHo district, Gilbert & George were an overnight sensation.
Somehow, though, the British duo never quite made it to the West Coast. Only now has their first full solo exhibition in a Los Angeles gallery opened. This is queer because the Pop dialect in which their Conceptual art is spoken is the stuff of which this city is made.
I wouldn't say it was worth the wait, if only because we've missed so much of Gilbert & George's immensely satisfying art in the intervening three decades. But the show--hung salon style, floor to ceiling, on seemingly every available wall surface at Gagosian Gallery--is chockablock with wit, pathos, sweet provocation and oddity.
"The Rudimentary Pictures," as they're titled, are just that. Dating from 1998, these 31 works offer up images of elementary human experience, especially love and sex, in the context of the modern urban world. They do it by using fundamental aspects of human biology--the fluid forms of blood, sweat, tears, semen and urine--to create surprising visual metaphors. Think "Sex and the City," Gilbert & George-style.
As usual, the photographic montages are mounted in black strip-frames and installed in grids, each work ranging from as few as four pictures to as many as 28. The emphatic black grid, standard icon of modernity, establishes an inescapable formal structure. Rationally organized and scientifically inflected, it's part window, part prison.
Several of the pictures incorporate enlargements of old city maps, dating from before the modern era, in which organically meandering roads and lanes are brought under the gridded spell of 20th century orderliness. Sometimes bursts of sexually oriented wall graffiti turn up. Throughout, black-bordered circles or ovals function as a cross between an eyeglass lens and the miraculous view through a microscope.
Enlarged in the microscope's eye are the otherwise invisible interior structures of semen, blood, perspiration, tears and urine. In the Age of AIDS, simply saying the words "bodily fluids" generates anxiety (or worse). But in the deft hands of Gilbert & George bodily fluids are redeemed, becoming strange, evocative environments full of surprising visual poetry.
Tears are like jungle ferns or frost crystals growing on a window. Urine mixes floral bouquets with Uzis. Blood looks like an aerial map of old London merging with the tender membrane of human skin.
Mortality is everywhere encountered in "The Rudimentary Pictures," from map-fragments recording cemetery sites to the traditional motif of buzzing flies. Charts of sewage treatment facilities, discarded and squashed chewing gum and Pollock-like splashes of bird droppings on city pavement turn waste products into unsentimental features of simple organic reality.
So are love and sex. Map enlargements identify the whereabouts of Love Hill Lane, Love Grove Street, Boy Court, Shafter Road, Spanker's Hill and more. From 1971's singing sculpture until now, the low and even puerile comedy of burlesque lives on.
In the midst of these richly patterned fields stand the artists themselves, sometimes naked (never "nude"), sometimes in nearly identical (but always slightly different) business suits with floral neckties. Gilbert & George look implacably out from the picture, directly at you. Lovers in the city--also like you.
"Rudimentary"--the carefully chosen word with which this enchanting suite of pictures has been titled--also means vestigial, in the biological sense of an incompletely developed organ with no functional activity. The male nipple is one rudimentary example happily cited by the artists. What better describes the status of art today?
* "Gilbert & George: The Rudimentary Pictures," Gagosian Gallery, 456 N. Camden Drive, Beverly Hills, (310) 271-9400, through March 11. Closed Sunday and Monday.