I’m glad I held off visiting Gilbert & George. The perfect moment to see it at the Milwaukee Art Museum arrived on a splendid July 3. Driving south on Lincoln Memorial Drive, I noticed how every inch of green space was packed with folks waiting for the Big Bang. Words flooded my mind as I cruised past at reasonable 25 miles per: campers, families, balloons, flags, barbeques … “good” words for the day before our day of Independence.
So here I am outside of the bright yellow portal to the show, wondering if what’s on the other side in the Baker/Rowland galleries will be worth the visit or just another freak show designed to rouse the apathetic. A sign outside the portal cautions that parents with kids better check out the content before entering. “Brace Yourself” is part of the show’s public relations spin.
I’m in. My first impression? BIG! But at this point I’m a blind person feeling the trunk of an elephant. My second impression? Why have I let myself get sucked into this s**t? A feeling creeps over me, a feeling akin to waiting for a cold speculum to be introduced into my c**t during a series of gynecological examinations. “This won’t hurt a bit,” the doctor lies. A half dozen other gawkers meander around the galleries, necks craned upward. The place is dead silent. The word “awestruck” comes to mind. I do a quickie tour, buy a catalog, and then settle down to consider what’s in my face – and I do mean in my face. My nose has been rubbed in something nasty and the sting of something – soap? – tingles my mouth. It’s oddly refreshing.
What’s this? The title says Dusty Corners No. 13. It’s a 16-panel piece centered with four mirror images of black and white photographs of G&G. The boys (the year is 1975) are conservatively clad in impeccable suits. Their demeanor is oddly Victorian and the effect is that of a “memorial.” Nothing about it is big, bold or brassy. It whispers innocence. The twelve panels surrounding them suggest either the beginning of a long journey or memories of a journey already lost in time. It’s beautiful. Gorgeous. Sublime.
This would be the one I’d like to take home. The gift shop has a smaller version for sale, but no, it won’t do. Only this one will do.
The Penis, a 1978 work bordered on the bottom edge with a graffiti-like drawing of a c**k spurting j*zz reminds me that t*ts is on Carlin’s forbidden list, and I have to ask myself, why t*ts, and not p**is? Oh, it’s a man’s world. As a straight white old lady, I almost forgot.
But the definition of “man,” or “men” if you will, is perhaps the point behind G &G’s work in a world where being queer is reason enough to be shamed. It’s impossible to miss the point of their anger (Are You Angry Or Are You Boring?, 1977), aimed at institutionalized religions who wag fingers and heap verbal abuse on the “others.” For all the balls-out bravado in their work, it’s highly doubtful that they consider it a big joke, though perhaps it is a joke on those who stand around gawking and “Bracing Themselves.” If you have to “brace yourself” for this show, you’re D.O.A. It’s as silly as the marketing ploy (highly criticized) surrounding Martin Ramirez at MAM. If you recall, it focused on Mr. Ramirez’s mental instability (highly questionable) rather than the elegance of his art. Why can’t we shake this f**king curse?
You’d be well advised to make an attempt to embrace, rather than “brace yourself” for, this show. Do I really like Shitted, 1983 (giant turds in flight), and wouldn’t I prefer G&G didn’t air their cocks in big living color? Some of the work seems to operate on shock value alone, but the duo from London works wonders when they cut the cr*p and stick with the heart of what their work is about: hypocrisy. Pity those viewers who stomp out of the show. Pity those who go only for the shocko shock. There is truth here, but you’ll need to dig through the obvious.
Near the end zone of the show is G & G’s 2006 Bomb, in which bombs and all their various possibilities are glorified in headlines. London Bridges Falling Down, down, down, and in the middle of it all, the images of the artists seem robotic and terrified, their eyes dead from seeing too much of – well, everything that humans hath wrought. It’s a long road away from the Victorian elegance of Dusty Corner #13.
I hope Carlin died happy with the seven forbidden words clinging to his tongue. Gilbert & George move out on September 1. All Fall Down. VS
Gilbert and George shows at the Milwaukee Art Museum, 700 N. Art Museum Dr., through September 1. Visit the Gilbert and George mini-site, complete with video interviews with the artists and an image gallery, or for more information call 414-224-3200.