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Gilbert & George: Popular imagery and taboo themes

— June 2011

Article read level: Art lover

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Covers and slipcase of The Complete Postcard Art of Gilbert & George

The Complete Postcard Art of Gilbert & George

Introduction by Michael Bracewell

Gilbert & George have been producing postcard art for nearly four decades, but took a twenty-year break between 1989 and 2009. The use, and juxtapositioning, of popular imagery and taboo themes in these works are typical of Britain’s most famous artist partnership. They use the postcards, as fragments of reality, to construct a picture of Britain, both historic and contemporary. This two-volume edition of Gilbert & George’s postcard art was published to mark the exhibition of their 2009 Urethra postcard series at the White Cube gallery, Mason’s Yard, earlier this year. It features over a thousand colour reproductions and introductory essays by Michael Bracewell. He clearly explains the chronology and methods of these works’ production, and discusses the ideas behind them in clear,  jargon-free language.

The first volume addresses the 440 postcard pictures produced between 1972 and 1989. Although they appear here as artworks in their own right, they can also be seen as sketches, related to the artists’ larger-scale works. The juxtaposition of many images, and occasionally text, shown in these postcards is condensed into their short titles, often of just one word. Gilbert & George were interested in the postcard as a piece of social stationery, an artwork that could be bought for pennies and sent to friends and family. The three-dimensionality of postcards is important for their function, and although the reverse of all the cards is hidden by their framing, the artists call these works sculptures; inclusion of the mounts, frames and labels in the reproductions of the works stress that they are objects, not images.

The second volume is dedicated to the Urethra postcard series produced in 2009, a selection of which are included in the White Cube exhibition.  The name of the series relates to the pattern in which Gilbert & George have arranged the sets of identical postcards – an angulated version of the symbol for the urethra. The subsets of the series, which can be grouped for the most part into London tourist postcards and adverts found in phone boxes, the former mainly pictorial, the latter largely textual, are visually unified by this arrangement. The visual effect of this is as impressive in the catalogue as it was in the exhibition, where the identical black frames were hung in two long parallel rows along the walls. The exhibition includes 155 of the 564 works in the Urethra series and represents the various visual themes taken up in the whole series.  The sheer number of images adorning the walls of the White Cube, can feel overwhelming, as each image jostled with its identical neighbour to gain the viewer’s attention.  The images are less vacuous than they may at first appear. When one image succeeds in drawing you in, you find that the detail is as fascinating as the monumentality of the whole exhibition is impressive.  Particularly in the Union Flag series, the repetition of the 13 postcards in each postcard-picture serves to emphasise the symbolic nature of the arrangement of red, white and blue.  The London Telephone Box Card pictures are classic Gilbert & George, combining sexuality, anonymity, the garish and the personal.  As Bracewell comments, the decline of the phone box and changes in legislation have made leaving these cards an arrestable offence; the decline of these cards turns them from vulgar litter into collectables. 

Bracewell’s essays are concise and the vast majority of each book is dedicated to reproductions of Gilbert & George’s postcards; the images are allowed to speak for themselves and readers can enjoy and interpret them as they wish. The book is ideal for fans of Gilbert & George, and anyone interested in British Pop art.  Beyond the content, two rather inescapable aspects of this book are its size and weight; the hardback binding, beautiful presentation of one illustration per page and cardboard double slipcase make it an imposing addition to a bookshelf, or a provocative addition to a coffee table.

This book is published by Prestel, 2011. Two volumes in slip case. Volume 1: 484 pp. 441 col. illus; Volume 2: 597 pp., 565 colour illus. ISBN 978-3-7913-5116-2


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