Art - Holly Johnson goes to Hoxton to get horny
Liverpool 1981. As a 21-year-old, unemployed, would- be pop artist, bleached-blond skinhead, up for anything, I strolled into the Walker Art Gallery, the home of pre-Raphaelite painting. A group exhibition entitled "Project 6: Art into the Eighties" stunned, inflamed and inspired me. I sat down, something I had never done before in an art gallery, and gazed up in wonder at a selection of works by that living sculpture, Gilbert & George. Ceiling-high photographic works were set within an aluminium black grid like a giant Georgian window frame. They spoke to me of my everyday existence, in the here and now Britain - of East End London walls graffitied with the hieroglyphics of neo-fascism - QUEER, NF, PAKI - in contrast to the genteel pageantry of silver jubilees and royal weddings that were being played out on TV and in the newspapers.The colour scheme was red, yellow, black and white - probably the only inks then available to tint these photographic installations. There was a cinema screen-sized face of an Asian man in a turban; a blonde youth; a series of men in uniform on parade; a single branch of cherry blossom.
Until then, only Andy Warhol had spoken to me through his pop art, film and plastic explosion of underground superstars - exotic New Yorkers in black leather who spoke with the same accents as movie stars, the Beautiful People, friends of John and Yoko, over there, in the Big Apple.
This world of Gilbert & George made me believe that something new and exciting was happening in my world - something attainable, to which I could perhaps contribute. This was, in their words, "art for all" - a far cry from the rarefied atmosphere of the Zanzibar in Covent Garden or the Colony Club in Soho where Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon drank champagne.
I asked a woman behind the desk: "Are they for sale? How much would you have to pay for one of these fantastic pieces?"
"£6,000," she replied, helpfully.
I immediately started thinking of ways that I could beg, borrow or steal that very sum (a tall order for one of the hordes of DHSS devotees signing on once a fortnight). From that moment, there was no other choice but to apply to art school and make my own work, an idea I had been toying with for years, as I hung around the college bar in Hope Street with the art and fashion students. FUCK POP, LET'S ART.
I followed the world of Gilbert & George with interest, reading about them and eventually buying signed books or catalogues of their exhibitions, which became more joyous and colourful year upon year. I marvelled at their Singing Sculpture, an end-of-pier performance piece, in which they were displayed as statuary in make-up and traditional tailoring against a soundtrack of the music-hall standard "Underneath the Arches". I went weak at the knees over the street boys who appeared naked or in blue jeans in the homoerotic masterpieces HIM and NAKED LOVE. I was charmed by the postcard pieces, multiples of images bought by G&G while on their regular living-sculpture walkabouts from their lovingly restored Spitalfields home in the East End of London, which they unwittingly turned into the place to be for any aspiring artist. I bought the T-shirt and the paper fan at the Hayward Gallery exhibition. During a prolonged period of illness, I couldn't quite stomach the Shit Pictures. My admiration was renewed at the end of 1999 on seeing "Gilbert & George 1991-1997", a mini-retrospective in the Ormeau Baths Gallery in Belfast, where I bought copies of the signed poster "FAIR PLAY" for friends and family. Art for all, indeed. At the millennium, a G&G Christmas decoration hung on my tree as I wrapped the G&G Rubik's cube that I had bought in the art superstore at Tate Modern.
And now, in a return to the stage, forsaking Anthony d'Offay, their West End art impresario of 20 years, they take top billing with Damien and Tracey in Jay Jopling's modern art marquee in London's Hoxton Square, just a short walk from their home. My first visit to this street 19 years ago was to buy leather and rubberwear for my own pop art performances, from a shop called Expectations, which masqueraded as a house (so that businessmen, Tory MPs or judges could come and go unnoticed).
As with their previous exhibitions, their work is designed for this specific space. To engage and surround the viewer in visual conversation and to ensure that their vision is not tampered with by curators, G&G first make a miniature set of the gallery and decide the size of the pictures according to the wall space.
"New Horny Pictures" returns to the colour scheme of red, yellow, black and white, but images of boys, cityscapes, and "jobbies" and other bodily emissions, have been replaced with words, using the language and typography of classified advertising for personal services culled from the pages of gay magazines. The boys for rent describe their attributes in an abbreviated language for maximum impact. Every provenance and physical type is represented here, every peccadillo provided for: cocky Irish, Nordic, Thai, Californian, Asian, slim, smooth, cute, bodybuilder, CP (corporal punishment), XVWE (extra very well endowed), in/out (their place or yours), colours (gay code for particular pleasures given or taken - red for fisting, yellow for water sports). Each window-pane within the pictures contains a numbered porthole or magnifying glass, blowing up the tiny ads to in-your-face proportions. Gilbert & George are there, too, looking out deadpan or in mock fear. Punters perhaps? Or the ghosts of Britain present, displaying reality and their own obsessions for all to see? Walk into any phone box and you can see cards for Sexy Schoolgirl Sarah, Mother Superior in Rubber, or Exotic Pre-op Transsexual; but you have to dig a bit deeper for "Active Service, Steve: hairy soldier, active type, 30s, specialist in military leather and TV scenarios". Most gay and bisexual men have already been entertained by such vignettes over the past decade or so. In fact, they appear almost quaint, anachronistic even, as the latest style of advertising includes open-legged and erect, full-frontal pictures. The viewer is required to read, maybe to be provoked to a more imaginative response. Gilbert & George are becoming older and more isolated in the pictures, another fact of life. Read what you wish into them, there is less joie de vivre and humour here and more psychological fantasy, sadness and poignancy. The subjects of these strange self-portraits seem driven by hunger, desperation and the lack of self-esteem that comes from being paid by the hour.
"Rent boys are the new royalty," said one ageing fashion designer. I was reminded of the old adage "The streets of London are paved with gold, but you have to bend over to pick it up". Horny mature duo Gilbert & George, voyeurs welcome, see them living, working and wanking together? Call Jay, 30s, 6ft 2ins, art for sale service, ex-public school, preppy look, stablemaster, or for ever wonder.
Holly Johnson is an invited artist at this year's "Royal Academy Summer Exhibition". An online exhibition of his paintings can be viewed at www.hollyjohnson.com
Gilbert & George's "New Horny Pictures" is at White Cube2, 48 Hoxton Square, London N1 (020 7930 5373), until 15 July