(First published 5th April 2007)
This match is prompted by the Gilbert and George (G&G) retrospective at the Tate Modern (until 7th May) and a shared interest in eccentric stylisation in photography and other printing, in homosexual undertones and droll Camp pretence, in the work of McDermott and McGough (M&M).
G&G began as mainly performance artists in the late 60s; then turned to video and photographic documentation. But the photographic layouts quickly take on a distinctly schematic arrangement, not simply grids for a sequence or spatial record favoured by many Conceptual artists at the time, but stressing symmetry, reversal and inversion for images, together with striking hand-tinting, all countering any simple documentary value the grids might hold. The formality of their gestures and appearance (usually in suit and tie) is thus extended to the arrangement of the photographs, flagging a non-literal or symbolic meaning.
G&G play or personify more general themes, a grim residence (in the series Dusty Corners 1975) a struggle with alcohol (the Bloody Life series, 1975) inner city decay and frustration (The Dirty Words Pictures 1977). G&G enact these themes with marked restraint, for the emphasis is not on literal depiction, but a more removed or allegorical representation. The works are essentially about giving their images meaning, about the things they can stand for, sometimes stand against. Later the grids grow larger, the lighting more dramatic, additional images more numerous, including texts and other people, but essentially they continue to be ways in which G&G represent, on a remote or stylised level.
Throughout the 80s the greater use of high contrast lighting and tone, broad tinting and blank backgrounds all recall the 60s silkscreens of Andy Warhol, as do the heavy outlines to shapes, anticipated in the bold tracings to Warhol’s work in the
70s. Similarly, grids of postcards such as Coronation Cross (1981) unmistakeably carry his influence. But their use in symmetrical collage is G&G’s own and the influence abates with the use of digital photography, more elaborate graphics and captions, soft focus backgrounds and more graded colours and tones. G&G build a style that deals in meaning at a distance; that stylises the relation. The grid distances the single photograph or image, as do colour and contrast. The works revel in the attenuation of their photographic sources, in emblematic formations, juxtaposed icons and severe symmetries. Unfortunately the work does not therefore quite belong to either photography or painting, and suffers a little in influence.
Deliberate artifice, however, is central to Camp – the homosexual’s acute appreciation of appearances and decorum. While homosexuality is legitimate in many places nowadays, there remains a big difference between being permitted and accepted, as any minority knows. So Camp endures, as an expression of the convenience of pretence, for those that may conceal their identity to a largely disapproving world. G&G lack the seeming frivolity of Camp, but promote a strictly public, formal identity that is extended to absurd and Camp lengths.
By contrast, M&M do not so much build a style as adopt and redeploy established ones. Both partnerships deal in photography, G&G steadily augmenting and ornamenting it with graphics, M&M initially reviving late 19th and early 20th century techniques to produce pastiches that literally transform their surroundings. M&M also use painting to showcase past styles of illustration (quite Camp in itself) and particularly of dress for distinct eras. There, one style affects perception of the other. This is rich and complex material, although M&M are less inventive at exploiting differences there than say, Early Hockney.
Subsequently, M&M’s painting concentrates on more recent styles and depicts period décor, comic strips and other illustration to stand for a the 50s or 60s or expected conduct then. To proceed from décor and design to demeanour is a very familiar brand of Camp, to summon a period by its toys and toiletries, slightly less so, but period, while remote in just the way of G&G’s allegories, is perhaps too tame a target. Similarly, to represent female sadness in terms of tinted stills from 50s soap operas (or vice versa) is a little obvious or comfortable. The potency of Camp lies in discerning styles ignored or undetected. A familiar or accepted style really only signals the need for others, in the Camp camp.
Where G&G look for things and ways to stand for, M&M look for things and ways that stand for, and the difference is not just between work focussed upon the person as opposed to objects, unusual or familiar realms, but finally, to invoke Susan Sontag’s distinction, between High and Low Camp.