‘Most amusing’: Gilbert and George welcome the public to their own gallery

  • london
  • April 1, 2023
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Every creative person yearns for a room of their own. But for the stars of Britain’s contemporary art world, it seems that now only a venue of their own will do. Last weekend it was Tracey Emin in Margate; on Saturday morning it was the turn of the veteran duo Gilbert and George.

“It is very exciting to see so many people,” said George Passmore, 81, after the gates swung wide at 10am to let in an orderly queue of first visitors. “Most amusing,” added his lifelong collaborator – and, since 2008, civil partner – Gilbert Prousch, 79. “They will all keep coming along, we hope.”

Dressed in complementary tweed suits, Gilbert and George said they were well satisfied with the number and variety of people who had come to inspect the vibrant images from their Paradisical Pictures series from 2019, now hung in three spacious galleries on Heneage Street. The former brewery off Brick Lane in east London offers a kaleidoscopic glimpse into the influential imaginations of these most enduring and iconoclastic British talents.

“Do you know the gates here are painted in a shade called Invisible Green?” asked Passmore. “It was invented for the great garden designer Humphry Repton when he noticed the grounds of the stately homes he created were being walked across by the public. He needed to put up barriers in a colour that would not stand out. It is odd, because it is not invisible at all.”

The pair’s decorative wrought-iron gates are also not intended to keep out the public. Far from it: the Gilbert and George Centre, which they have planned for years, is a built representation of their slogan “art is for all” and designed as a gift to the community they have lived and worked alongside together for most of their working lives.

The gallery’s opening show is the Paradisical Pictures series from 2019. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

Passmore, born in Devon, and Prousch, born in Italy, met in 1967 while studying sculpture at St Martin’s School of Art in London and developed a unique and entertaining style that places their own images in a variety of visual contexts and poses. “We are two people but one artist,” they have been fond of explaining.

This first show in the venue features vast photographic screens of leaves and organic products, including figs, roses, dates and leafy greens through which the artists peer or can be seen lolling on benches, either resting or in a swoon.

“It is so classy and understated,” said Molly Andrews, an admiring local and a professor of political science at University College London, who congratulated the couple. “And it is next to our favourite pub too.”

Among visitors from farther afield was George Gama from Spain, who came along with his wife, Rosalia, and daughter Corina: “I did not know their work before, but I like their colours a lot. I am a big fan of Salvador Dalí.”

Mark Schofield, 50, a longtime fan, brought his parents, Jackie and Tony, down from Peterborough to see the show. A scientist who now lives in Boston, he was bowled over by the galleries.

“There’s this clear contrast that I love between the deadpan faces and the joy and mischief of the art. It is so English, somehow,” he said.

Rachel Scott, a painting conservator from Dalston, was also struck by the humour of the work – particularly the saucy picture entitled Date Stone Fuck. “It made me laugh,” she said. “There is real impact from seeing everything together. It is spectacular.”

‘There’s a clear contrast between the deadpan faces and the joy and mischief of the art’: visitor Mark Schofield, with his parents Jackie and Tony. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

For Bash Ali, 44, a charity worker and artist, the trip up from the south-east of the city had been well worth it. “It really works. It is such a great space.”

The “naughty and a bit rude” tone of much of Gilbert and George’s art was part of the appeal, said Paul Rudgley from Birmingham, who was visiting the centre with his artist friend Arran Patel from London. But in the end, as a collector of Pantone colours and a former paint industry executive, it was the bright and bold hues that won the day for him.

The opening of the Gilbert and George Centre followed last weekend’s seaside event in Margate, Kent, when a new artists’ space run by Tracey Emin, a comparative newcomer on the subversive art scene, was unveiled. And over in south London, Damien Hirst’s Newport Street Gallery has also given space to displays of work from his own art and his wider collection since 2015. Admission to each of these three new private galleries is free, although Hirst’s is currently closed.

Eaten Mess (2019), one of the Paradisical Pictures. Photograph: Gilbert & George. Courtesy The Gilbert & George Centre

Emin, 59, wore a full town crier’s outfit for the opening of her venue. Called the TKE Studios and T.E.A.R. (Tracey Emin Artist Residency), it has been constructed inside a former Edwardian bath-house after a £1m investment. As the artist cut the ribbon, she promised: “We are going to make Margate an artistic mecca” before she announced new plans to buy up a nearby derelict pavilion, for swimmers and surfers.

Early to the trend for running his own artistic space, Turner prize finalist Yinka Shonibare offered more than just a gallery to visitors to his experimental space in east London. Called Guest Projects, and launched a decade ago, his project still offers residences for performers as well as visual artists and musicians.

When it started, it provided food, too, in a special supper club called the Artists Dining Room where guest chefs create dinners inspired by the work of artists including Louise Bourgeois, David Lynch, Frida Kahlo and Jean-Michel Basquiat.

“Artists should have a space in which they can fail, and the art market doesn’t really allow room for failure – there’s too much at stake,” Shonibare said at the time.