Living Sculptures Make Digital Paintings

Simon Bayliss on Gilbert & George: The London Pictures

For the digital painting issue of The Painting Imperative I have chosen to write about The London Pictures, firstly because the work is produced digitally but also because I have always felt Gilbert & George’s practice is akin to painting. Their oeuvre; full of moralising figures surrounded by allegorical abstraction is for me, reminiscent of great gesticulating renaissance paintings by Veronese or El Greco. Perhaps this is why Italians love Gilbert & George. The artists always refer to their work as pictures however. Complicating matters further, this is one of the few series since the Dirty Word Pictures of 1977, which uses text as well as imagery to prompt their subject. I am therefore not going to argue a case for it to be considered painting but rather to interpret and discuss the exhibition, whilst highlighting some of the similarities and differences between the field of painting and the artists’ own indistinct domain.

Spread across all three London White Cube galleries, The London Pictures are an epic text-filled new series mapping an entire era of bombastic newspaper headlines, revelling in Britain’s reckless media obsession. After six years of pilfering posters from outside newsagents in the East-End, the artists categorised their collection, formatting each headline into starkly gridded pictures which drum home themes such as ‘MURDER’, ‘DEATH-PLUNGE’, ‘PAEDO’, ‘BANKER’, ’HOODIES’ and ‘GUNMEN’. The snippets of text, intense and loaded as they are, are layered over hallucinogenic digital photo-montages. In their trademark manner the artists pose as ‘living sculptures’ in grotty London streets, reflected in the shiny paintwork of SUVs, or peering out of lace net curtains (‘house burkas’ as they call them).

Murder is the largest piece in the Bermondsey show, disconcertingly because it was the most common theme in the artist’s collection of newsagent posters. At more than eight metres long it engulfs the viewer in 64 raucous headlines. Some are over sensationalised, such as ‘MURDER BID TYCOON CLEARED’, or ‘TV SINGER MURDER HUNT’ but others refer to well known cases such as the Steven Lawrence and the Damilola Taylor killings.  Like all the pictures it is spectacularly black & white, with ketchup red to enforce the word ‘MURDER’ in every box of text.

Gilbert & George, eerily digitalised and dressed in their characteristic tailored suits, levitate over a fragmented London street scene. Fake-tan tint highlights the artists’ faces and hands and their enhanced eyes are super-white. They appear hyper-human; manikins come to life. Rays of light emanate from their bodies; they are eccentric demi-gods, staring pensively through the surface layer of the text as if ironically indifferent or morally aloof to the horrors proclaimed by the tabloid merchants. In the background the roads are familiar and mundane, preserving everything quotidian and local.  A ‘Jerome Street’ sign, double yellow lines, railings, a halal butchers, a Kingsmill lorry and a man on a bike all appear in dreamy premonitions of what could be the scene of the next brutal murder.

Picture pandemonium

The backgrounds of The London Pictures are like the backdrop to a play, without which there would be no visual atmosphere. Scale is skewed, the fabric of space is bent, the artists and their surroundings are often abstracted into kaleidoscopic hallucinations. The images evoke mystery, spirituality, visceral intensity and openness for subconscious interpretation; all aspects attributed to great painting. I cannot however, imagine a painting exhibition which could be so visually exhausting.  With text layered on top there is nowhere to rest the eye. Assessing the Bermondsey gallery as a whole was like extracting information from an illustrated reference book with every page laid out. There are no interludes and no distinctions between chapters however, and every picture featured in all three White Cube venues, pertains to the same formula. The black framed panels create abrupt transitions from one window to the next, and as in advertising, the words instil without the effort of required reading; one’s eye is forced to dance about the picture plane. Viewing the work reminded me of the way information is acquired now using a computer or smart phone. Cultural theorists have suggested that the internet has changed the way we read and even the way we think. Rather than spending long periods absorbed in a subject we now flitter from one extract to the next, juggling multiple threads of enquiry simultaneously. The cerebral strain induced by taking on-board the panelled perplexity of these pictures was for me, similar to the addlement caused by too much cyber-surfing.

In figurative painting it is common to find signs and symbols which ease the transition between reality and the narrative image world. In many annunciation paintings for example, a white dove or a beam of light urges ones gaze toward the Virgin Mary. For me the liberating feature, in every bottom right panel of The London Pictures, is ironically the Queen’s profile scanned from scarred and battered coins. As in most good books, the concluding words on the last page will often point to answers, a better way of perceiving the world, or a way out of a story. In this case one can look to the queen for direction and follow her gaze out of the picture and away from the pandemonium. This royal stamp of approval may be an indication of Gilbert & George’s openly conservative political views, although as in all their work, it is impossible to distinguish between the authenticity and the irony.

A democratic medium

Warhol is the glaring influence for me when considering the history of painting. Back in the middle of the last century, whilst the abstract expressionists were relentlessly grappling with the essence of painting, Warhol lifted painting practice out of its inwardly spiralling trajectory by turning it democratic. Screen-printing adhered to mass media production because of its everyday use as an industrial technology in advertising, wallpapers and fabric design. In Pop Art the medium was no longer the message and was free from the heavy-handed philosophy of aesthetics. Gilbert & George’s attitude to their democratic choice of vehicle is remarkably similar: “the question of our medium is more for the art profession than for the public; a normal person does not think about such things, you see a picture, you want to know what it says”. A noticeable distinction triggered by the photographic quality of the text and image layers is the pictures’ divide between the two modes of communication. In the field of painting it is unusual to find such polarity between visual layers. Ed Ruscha paintings for example, are more integrated; the composure of the paint itself retains the tension between the text and image. A photographic print however does not have a physicality to bind the two components.

As a traditional and slow medium, paintings often reveal fascinating information about their own unique construction as well as insights into the history and culture of the practice. Printing however, is a fast and universal mode of communication. The printing press was probably the most influential invention of the last millennium, revolutionising the spread of information and ushering in the age of modernity. The London Pictures are glossy and magnificent, but apart from reiterating the everyday use of the medium, there is nothing to seek beyond the images themselves.

The grid structure, the advertising industry aesthetic, and the ready-made nature of the visual props in the London Pictures, are adopted Warholian characteristics personified by the Campbell’s Soup Cans, now modernised in the digital age.  The mode of collecting and categorising the newspaper headlines, take their cue not from a painter however, but probably from conceptual artists and photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher who used a similar influential model for art production. They are known for systematically photographing and classifying functionalist architecture using a consistent aesthetic organised in a grid. But whereas Bernd and Hilla Becher travelled to coal mines, steel mills and industrial gas plants across Europe to document them, Gilbert and George walked to local newsagents around Spitalfields and Liverpool Street in East-London to source material. “One of us would buy a Mars Bar while the other stole the poster”, said George.

The horror or the hype

Using text, the artists suggested, has allowed them to tackle subjects they may have otherwise found impossible: “I wouldn’t like to start thinking about how you paint a group of yobs- it would seem very patronising or awkward”. This remark for me however, is too quick off the mark and embodies a lazy aspect of visual-art culture feeding on ready-mades and appropriation.  As we all know, great paintings transcend their own conception or word-based description. Leon Golub has successfully painted groups of the most criminal yobs, Eric Fischl painted some disturbingly paedophilic narratives, and with his infamous children’s hand-print painting of Myra Hindley, Marcus Harvey created the archetypal image of murder.

Although The London Pictures have emerged from a strict conceptual exercise, the scope and richly defined locality of the project has prompted critics to describe the atmospheric narrative as Dickensian. For me however, it evokes more the relentless insularity of Eastenders; one appalling and ludicrous storyline after another in endless series.  As directors of an epic soap-opera, Gilbert & George haunt every piece, gazing beyond the picture plane with expressions of unlimited patience. Here they present a London cityscape mirroring both its daily depravity alongside the public’s fascination with media drama; it depends on one’s perception which is the greater force, the horror or the hype.

As text augmented ‘digital paintings’ made by and featuring ‘living sculptures’, they exist outside straightforward aesthetic categorisation.  Reproduced as prints however, they function as paintings would have in the era before painting became self-aware after the onset of photography. The London Pictures cut straight to the point without the question of medium blurring their vision. The scale and relentless objective of this highly topical series could not be achieved now using a slow approach. Outside of Vatican City, it would be hard to find paintings with equivalent ambition and scope.

Image 1: South Gallery

Image 2: Murder, 2011, 148 7/16 x 324 13/16 in. (377 x 825 cm)

Image 3: Yobs, 2011, 118 7/8 x 100 in. (302 x 254 cm)

Image 4: London, 2011 118 7/8 x 200 in. (302 x 508 cm)

All images couresy of White Cube, London.


Simon Bayliss is an artist based in Devon and Dorset. He studied painting in England, Czech Republic and Ireland and his work is exhibited and collected internationally.