In 1967, when Gilbert Prousch and George Passmore were students at Saint Martin’s School of Art in London, they did a few things few artists did: They teamed and made art as a collaborative duo. They wore suits and ties whenever they appeared in public. And they called themselves Gilbert & George.
Think Siegfried & Roy. Or Penn & Teller. Or Rodgers & Hammerstein. But also Tom and Jerry. Bert and Ernie. Beavis and Butt-Head.
In referring to themselves in such a way, Gilbert & George asserted that art was a form of entertainment and that their art was as beholden to the spectacle of lavishly produced musicals and the silliness of TV cartoons as it was to established avant-garde practices like performance and conceptual art.
Gilbert & George wanted to be both famous and familiar, a couple of regular guys who made art so direct and accessible that dogs and cats — not to mention people from all walks of life could understand it. They got their wish, in ways I can’t imagine they imagined in the 1960s, when London was swinging and the couple dressed formally yet painted their faces with metallic pigments, as if they were the rainbow version of Blue Man Group.
For the past half-century, Gilbert & George have covered the walls of museums and galleries all over the globe with blown-up photo-collages of themselves and their surroundings. Thirty-five of their signature works — some measuring 10-by-18 feet — transform Sprüth Magers gallery into a giddy, head-spinning extravaganza.
The luminosity of the garish colors calls to mind stained glass windows in great cathedrals from the Renaissance and Middle Ages. But the in-your-face abrasiveness of the cut-and-paste compositions echoes the DIY ethos of punk graphics — and the illicit anonymity of ransom notes.
That old-new, high-low, sacred-profane, art-life collision is made even more complex — and resonant — by the way Gilbert & George depict themselves in their images: as senior citizens overwhelmed by the crazed cacophony of modern life. If you’re confused by their overwrought, over-the-top pictures, your experience is no different from theirs.
In many of their multipanel pieces, each of the septuagenarians peers out at us, their expressions calm but not especially cool or collected. Sometimes each seems to be going through the motions, playing a role that has grown old, its use-by date long past. Paradoxically, that impression elicits sympathy.
There’s a sweetness to their works. But it’s countered by the brashness of their compositions, which keep sentimentality at bay. Both earnest and tongue-in-cheek, Gilbert & George are positively Warholian in their embrace of ambivalence, particularly as it plays out in terms of vulgarity and beauty.
Titled “The Paradisical Pictures,” their sprawling, wallpaper-style exhibition evokes both the promise of paradise and the failure to reach it. Like processed snacks labeled “real food flavor,” their double-edged works evoke an ideal by acknowledging that they fall short of that fantasy.
Think of the Garden of Eden gone to seed, its fruits and flowers ripened and rotting. That captures the melancholia — and humanity — served up by their savvy brand of Pop realism.
The user-friendly images made by Gilbert & George come with a kick. Use them at your own risk.
When: Tuesdays-Saturdays, through Jan. 25
Info: (323) 634-0600, www.spruethmagers.com
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