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Gilbert and George: The General Jungle

4 October 2017 Oskar Oprey

Gilbert and George have been working together for many years. Famous for their stained glass windows, The Lévy Gallery this Autumn is home to some of their earlier, more low-key work from the 70s. These 23 charcoal-on-paper 'sculptures' make up 'The General Jungle or Carrying on Sculpting', shown for the first time in the United Kingdom, are a must see for any Gilbert and George fanatics.

This week marks the 50th anniversary of dapper art duo Gilbert and George. The special occasion isn’t a birthday in the traditional sense of the word, but commemorates a fleeting moment in 1967, when two young artists – Gilbert Proesch and George Passmore – met as students at St Martins School of Art. It was love at first sight. Surnames were dropped, two became one, and the rest is art history – with lots of dirty words, bodily fluids and outrage along the way. We wonder how they’ll be celebrating – maybe dinner at Mangal 2 in East London, where they’re rumored to dine every night of the week? Or perhaps they’ll crack open a bottle of Ruinart, the only champagne they deem worthy to sip (ruin art – get it?).


Starting next month, a huge showcase of their most recent body of work, The Beard Portraits will concurrently go on show in six cities across the world – hitting London’s White Cube Bermondsey in late November. Visitors to this year’s RA Summer Show were given a sneak peak of what’s to come, where Beard Speak (2016) outdid the competition in terms of full-scale attention grabbing mayhem. But fans wishing to pay their respects a little sooner should head immediately to Mayfair’s Lévy Gorvy, which is currently treating visitors to one of the artist’s earliest series, “The General Jungle”.

Installation view of Gilbert & George: The General Jungle or Carrying on Sculpting. Photo by Stephen White. © 2017 Gilbert & George

Also known as “Carrying on Sculpting”, these 23 monumental sculptures from the early 70s (everything Gilbert and George create is defined as a sculpture, whether it be one of their trademark photo pieces, a video of their drunken antics or, in this case, charcoal drawings) were originally conceived to act as backdrops to a now iconic performance piece titled “The Singing Sculpture”. With their faces covered in shiny metallic paint, the duo would stand perched on a small table, singing along to Flanagan and Allen’s down-and-out music hall classic “Underneath the Arches” ad infinitum.

Sadly, they won’t be pulling a reprisal of the performance anytime soon – they’re both in their mid-seventies after all – but this gives the General Jungle works, exhibited for the first time in the UK in their totality, an opportunity to shine. Depicting a day in the life of the artists, G&G and can be seen idyllically strolling in amongst the bushes and shrubbery of Kew Gardens and Regents Park. These may at first appear to be set in the countryside, but everything they’ve made has been entirely set in London. As George pointed out in a BBC News tie-in for the show, “London, in our experience, has always been the most democratic city in the world. It’s a city where everyone feels they can have part of everything”. Except this depiction of London is completely devoid of other Londoners (or tourists, or traffic, or pigeons, or squirrels) - we even spotted an empty park bench nestled in one of the pieces, just to reinforce the point. It’s just Gilbert and George, totally alone but content with each others company and lost in their own thoughts. These thoughts appear as captions at the bottom of each piece, linking them all into one continuous narrative: “we step into the responsibility suits of our art” or “walking is the eternity of our living movement, it can never tell us of an end.”

Detail from IS NOT ART THE ONLY HOPE FOR THE MAKING WAY FOR THE MODERN WORLD TO ENJOY THE SOPHISTICATION OF DECADENT LIVING EXPRESSION 1971 Private collection. Photo by Stephen White © 2017 Gilbert & George

The pieces have a somewhat twee, picturesque feel to them – like illustrations for a 1930s children’s book. In fact the artists deliberately made the works look dated and antiquarian, the paper creased and blotted to give it a ‘found buried in the attic’ feel. But in the context of the kind of art predominant at the time  – stark conceptual minimalism – Gilbert and George were totally radical, often receiving a somewhat frosty reception in the UK whilst being feted by the American and European art worlds. Critics might wonder if the artists and these pieces are intellectual posturing. We don’t think we’ll ever know, because Gilbert and George are masters at appearing totally sincere, but we’d like to think that they are. They’ve certainly stuck to their motto of ‘Art For All’, with Lévy Gallery selling signed posters for a very affordable £20, a perfect way to spend your pocket money. Here’s to another fifty years!
 

Gilbert and George: The General Jungle or Carrying on Sculpting is at the Lévy Gorvy Gallery London from September 13th to November 18th.  Tickets are free.
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