LONDON – Artists, if they have really made a mark, might get a gallery dedicated to their work once they are gone.
Gilbert and George don’t want to wait that long.
The dapper duo, who have been creating beguiling and unsettling art together for over half a century, have poured their own time and money into the Gilbert and George Center, a permanent exhibition and research space devoted to their work. Located just off bustling Brick Lane in London’s East End, the building opens to the public April 1 with an exhibition of the big, bold photo assemblies for which the pair has become famous.
Admission is free — and that, they say, is important.
“We want to make art for people, not for collectors,” said Italy-born Gilbert Prousch, who met Englishman George Passmore at London’s St. Martin’s art college in 1967. They have been partners in art and in life ever since.
“Our earliest slogan was ‘Art for all,’” added George in an interview Friday with The Associated Press.
“We’re always being stopped on the streets of London by young people who say, ‘I love your art.’ We say, ‘Which art did you see?’ And they’d never actually seen an exhibition. They saw a catalogue in a house or a magazine. So we thought, if there is a proper place where you can have pictures permanently on show, it would be fantastic.”
Gilbert and George — like Raphael or Madonna, known universally by their first names — are as recognizable as their art, inseparable from it and from each other.
In early work they performed as living statues, a pair of impeccable gentlemen in tweed suits with a subversive streak. Later they inserted their own images into photo montages, juxtaposed against the totems and detritus of modern life – newspaper headlines, graffiti, advertisements, garbage, even excrement and bodily fluids.
Over the decades they have created hundreds of these huge, multicolored assemblies, which resemble secular — some might say sacrilegious — stained-glass windows.
“We invented a language for ourselves,” Gilbert said.
Added George: “We have different things to say as we traverse through life, but the form remains the same.”
They began as self-styled outsiders, and Gilbert says they still feel that way.
“We felt we were alone,” he said. “We have never been part of an art group, never been art groupies. We kept ourselves outside. And it’s freedom to be there.”
Still, the gleaming new gallery reflects their status as art world stars whose work has been displayed in museums around the world and has sold for more than $3 million at auction.
The art center, with 3,000 square feet (280 square meters) of exhibition space in three high-ceilinged galleries, has been created from a 200-year-old former brewery in Spitalfields, an area that has been home to successive groups of migrants, from French Protestant Huguenots to eastern European Jews to Bangladeshi Muslims.
For decades the neighborhood has attracted the young and creative, with its warehouse spaces, cheap restaurants, street markets and independent stores. Gilbert and George have lived in the area for years and have seen it move steadily upmarket; 18th-century houses like the one they live in now sell for millions.
Despite gentrification, the area continues to inspire them.
“The East End of London is a global center — has always been,” Gilbert said.
Works in the gallery’s debut exhibition, “The Paradisical Papers,” depict the pair amid lush, faintly psychedelic foliage including flowers, berries and leaves, in bold hues of green, purple and pink. This is a very earthly paradise, with dollops of sex — there are some suggestively bulbous dates and figs — and hints of rot and decay.
It may be the garden of paradise, but there is something lurking in the undergrowth.
“Most people think of paradise as the afterparty, and we are reversing that: We’re starting off with the paradisical pictures,” George said.
“The party’s here,” Gilbert added.
Gilbert and George think of the new gallery as a gift to the public, but not a goodbye. As they enter their ninth decades — Gilbert is 79 and George 81 — the pair remain as excited by art as they were when they started.
“We are still amazed and fascinated by the great mystery of creativity,” George said. “When we go down to the studio in the morning and see the picture we created or finished the day before, we are never able to reconstruct exactly how we arrived at that. And not being able to do that shows that there is some mystery and magic there."
“The pictures make themselves, as much as we can let them. We try not to interfere too much,” he added. “Think of the sound of the world turning, the pain of the world turning at the moment. Just imagine that. That’s quite an inspiration.”