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Uploaded by : Chris Vroom | 03/15/09

“ - leaving his colleagues to indulge in empty verbiage, he pressed
forward his investigations in other directions, for he was bold
enough to aim at storming God in His most secret strongholds.”

Andre Gide; ‘The Vatican Cellars’ (1914)

“We think every single person is religious, to a certain degree.
That’s what we are, as well. We try to sort out what that means.”

Gilbert & George. 1986.

Lustrous, ornate, pictorially complex, vividly coloured, yet suffused
with tenebrous solemnity, the ‘Sonofagod’ pictures have all of the
dramatic visual impact which one might expect to find in neo-Gothic
medievalism - in Victorian reclamations of Celtic or Moorish
symbolism, for example, regally bejewelled and portentous with
romantic mysticism. At the same time, however, the ‘Sonofagod’
pictures possess a darkly graven strangeness, at once archaic and
ultra-modern, in which their temper no less than their signage appears
deeply contemporary, ritualistic and disturbed.

Gilbert & George attach particular importance to the titles of their
pictures, and those of the ‘Sonofagod’ pictures seem almost drawn from
some futuristic slang: ‘Eesa’, ‘Base’, ‘Dote’, ‘Free Fall’, ‘Rank’,
‘Basket’, ‘Mufti’. Some are taken from Islamic sources (‘Eesa’, for
example, means ‘Jesus’), while others suggest a suburban English
quaintness - ‘Pixie Hill’ or ‘Good Luck’.

The title of the biggest picture of this group, ‘Was Jesus
Heterosexual’, also includes two lines of text, running along the top
and bottom of the picture. ‘Jesus says forgive yourself/ God loves
fucking! Enjoy’. In keeping with the extensive use of texts, words,
slogans and found anonymous writings in the art of Gilbert & George,
these pronouncements are in fact quotations from graffiti. In the
context of these pictures their sense seems simultaneously feckless,
mischievous, enlightened and mad - all qualities which might describe
the visual language of the entire group of ‘Sonofagod’ pictures.

This mixture of the sacred and profane, ancient and modern, coded
and explicit, opulent and debased, ornate and horrific, seems central
to the sustained force of these pictures on religious subjects. Gilbert
& George appear within some of the pictures - ‘Akimbo’, for example’,
and ‘Basket’ - as remote, blurred, unreachable figures. They seem to
gesture or pose, ghost-like, from beyond a gauze-like membrane in the
depth of the picture. This serves to sharpen even further the
extravagant imagery in the foreground. Elsewhere, Gilbert & George
appear in the halved, doubled, reflected versions of themselves - at
once impassive and possessed, human and allegorical, their appearance
punning, perhaps, on the dual nature of their single identity as an
artist.

But the principal imagery of these pictures is taken from a widely
eclectic, multi-denominational and multi-cultural range of religious
and superstitious symbolism. Islam, Free Masonry, national insignia,
Catholicism and Judaism are all represented, as well as an array of
folk loric charms: imps, horseshoes, wishbones, prayer medals, lucky
amulets.

Bifurcated,. reflected down their centres, fused together, mixed,
mutated, and crowded into a single, seemingly deafening chorus of
beliefs, these emblems become a visually dense patterning of
blasphemous iconography. Debased through their transposition into
grotesquery, the mutant tokens of this polytheistic anarchy confront
us from shadowed half lights of scarlet, royal blue, emerald and gold
- the hues of which are at times so rich that they seem to have a
poisonous glow.

The styles and materials of these amulets and devices are suggestive
of all the pomp and splendour that one might associate with both
institutional ornament, and the plain or semi-precious extravagance of
cheaply acquired lucky charms. Together they present a single texture
- neither Godly nor godless, but a vast, heterogeneous patterning of
pietistic insignia, at once intricate and foreboding. This is no
single attack upon a single faith, but seemingly a rounded denouncement
of belief in deistic or supernatural power per se. The array of
religious cosmology appears in a state of deranged, confused and
debased anarchy - its symbolism becoming a lurid pageant of absurd,
impotent monsters, rococo in its extravagance.

But the art of Gilbert & George has always been steeped in religious
and sacred imagery, as much as it is rooted in the signage and symbols
that one could find without difficulty in almost any modern city on
Earth. They have presented this imagery as it finds its place as a
vital informant of the individual and social experience of being alive
in the modern world.

In this much, Gilbert & George have viewed religious and folk-loric
symbolism as part of a much greater vision of signs and tokens.
Crosses and swastikas, sacred texts from the Bible or the Koran,
nature and prayer, are seen alongside graffiti or political
leafleting, coinage, magnified bodily substances, vistas of buildings
or the faces of strangers.

And yet the sacred and the secular seem always to exist within the
art of Gilbert & George as both ambiguous and interchangeable. In
pictures from the 1980s, for example - ‘Black Church Face’ (1980),
‘Life Without End’ (1982), ‘Youth Faith’ (1982) - we find directly
Christian imagery and attitude within the pictures, but seemingly
re-positioned to present what Robert Rosenblum has described as “new
versions of religious truths and passions - a universe of burgeoning
nature and beautiful male youths”, amidst which Gilbert & George,
“kneel and pray to their own creation.”

In the epic quadripartite ‘Death Hope Life Fear’ from 1984, the imagery and
composition of the pictures appears less Christian in its imagery and
more reminiscent of Indian tantric art; but the monumental pictures
which comprise the four appear ceremonial and ritualistic - almost
as though each picture was in one sense a guardian image to some
manner of theological text.

And yet again, from the ‘New Testamental Pictures’ of 1997 (the title
itself being perhaps a pun on the Biblical sense), we
see in ‘Sodom’, ‘Spit Law’ and ‘Eat and Drink’, the corporeality of
Gilbert & George at its most vulnerable and intense, set against
reproduced religious texts relating to sexual behaviour. As such, we
can see how the ‘Sonofagod’ pictures advance and consolidate a major
theme and a crucial emotion - our individual and collective
relationship to religion and superstition - within the art of Gilbert
& George.

But there is a renewed intensity to the imagery within these
pictures, which fills them with anger and horror; their mood is one of
indictment and rebellion, an assault on all the laws and institutions
of superstition and religious belief. As such, the ‘Sonofagod’
pictures might be regarded as comprising the ecclesiology of
aggressive agnosticism.

In ‘Mass’, for example, we see the figures of Gilbert & George,
simultaneously halved and reflected down their centres (the effect
seeming to etiolate their bodies) quite surrounded by a profusion of
crucifixes and crosses. The figures of Christ upon the crucifixes are
also halved and reflected down their centres, making a deformed shape
which is at once monstrous and reminiscent of a splayed carcass. In
their turn, these crucifixes (there are twelve - one for each panel of
the picture) are set amongst further crosses which appear almost
layered on top of one another, as though creating a tessellation of
partially overlapping religious medals. The effect is both horrific
and opulent, just as ‘Give It Up’ and ‘Crosswise’ appear to echo the
visual luxuriance of some Roman Catholic decoration.

Elsewhere, obscenely divided ‘lucky pixies’ leer out at the viewer
from ‘Heterodoxy’, while the figures of Christ upon the Cross appear
skeletal and defaced, the upper body cowled within bejewelled
horseshoes which are themselves inverted. In traditional folk lore, to
hang a horseshoe above the door was good luck, but to hang it inverted
would bring bad luck. The figures of Gilbert & George stand within
‘Heterodoxy’, reflected down their centre, green suited, their
expression simultaneously intent and vacant, all- knowing and
unknowable. Around their heads are the faint, luminescent spheres of
aureola, suggestive of holiness or sanctity.

In many ways, these ‘Sonofagod’ are perhaps the most violent pictures
which Gilbert & George have ever made. They present religions and
superstitions as evil in themselves, their laws and institutions
nothing more than the enforcers of fundamentalism, prejudice,
persecution and tyranny. And it is against such dogma and cruelty that
these pictures declare their forceful antagonism. As such, we could
see the ‘anti-religious’ fervour of these pictures as being in the
lineage of Beaudelaire’s ‘blasphemous’ writings from the middle of the
nineteenth century - specifically his ‘Fleurs du Mal’ and ‘Journaux
Intimes.’ In a critical essay on Beaudelaire written in 1930,
T.S.Eliot observed: “But actually Beaudelaire is concerned, not with
demons, black masses and romantic blasphemy, but with the real problem
of good and evil...” A pronouncement endorsed by Christopher
Isherwood’s statement in 1949 that Beaudelaire was “a deeply religious
man, whose blasphemies horrified the orthodox...”

The same might be said, perhaps, of these disturbing, revolutionary,
morally complex pictures, and of the artists who have created them.

Michael Bracewell is a novelist and cultural historian.

First published in Bracewell, Michael. SONOFAGODPICTURES Was Jesus Heterosexual? , White Cube, London 2006


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