Naked Eye is one of a group of works made in 1994 called The Naked Shit Pictures which were exhibited at the Jablonka Galerie, Cologne in 1994-5 and at the South London Gallery in 1995. In both exhibitions this frieze-like composition, with its striking contrasts of scale, was displayed high on the gallery walls. As the title indicates, works in the group depict the artists naked, or semi-dressed, often in conjunction with scaled-up images of faeces. These primary motifs are juxtaposed with urban or parkland scenes, giant anonymous suited bodies and limbs or faces of the artists, or set against colour grounds. Marked contrasts in scale are a dominant feature in the series. The pictures are made in the format predominating in the artists’ practice since 1980, in which scaled-up coloured photographic images are spread over grids of abutting panels, permitting the composition of extremely large works. In Naked Eye the artists’ huge bisected faces fill most of the picture’s twenty-seven panels. They bracket a smaller central motif showing both artists standing naked, covering their eyes with their hands. The work is made from enlarged black and white photographs tinted with a brownish flesh tone which dominates the image. Dark pink and blue have been used to tint the irises standing out from the whites of the four enormous eyes and the hair of the smaller standing figures. The face of George’s wrist-watch also stands out in white in the upper centre of the composition.
Subversive identity has been central to the work of Gilbert and George since their earliest collaborations studying sculpture together at St Martin’s School of Art (1967-9). In a Magazine Sculpture published in 1970 entitled The Shit and The Cunt, photographs of the artists are captioned with the words ‘Gilbert the Shit’ and ‘George the Cunt’. Although A Portrait of the Artists as Young Men 1970 (Tate T01704) presents a pair of rather straight-laced young men in suits, Gordon’s Makes Us Drunk (Tate T01703), made two years later, shows the artists becoming increasingly drunk. Their subsequent works are all based on visions of the two artists in the world – first the natural world and then the urban world, the world of the area around Fournier Street in East London where they lived – coupled with a dark introspection reflecting their belief that ‘there’s nothing in the world which is not also inside of you’ (quoted in A Arte de Gilbert & George, [p.15]). Their pictures challenge taboos and aim to relate to everyman at the same time.
In the Naked Shit Pictures the artists presented themselves stripped of their trademark suits for the first time. Images of their naked bodies appear the same size as scaled-up faeces and bear such punning titles as Naked Shit 1994 (collection unknown) and Human Shits 1994 (private collection). These works equate the living human body with the abject, the waste matter to which it will return after death, as well as seeming to pass a comment on the moral nature of the artists themselves. The four-panel work in the group, Shitty Naked Human World 1994 (Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam), extends this judgment to the surrounding world. The artists have commented:
We discovered very soon after making those pictures that people found their own vulnerability in the images of ourselves. They didn’t just see our vulnerability they saw the vulnerability of us all ... They are really like Bible pieces. They tell us that we are all human. So I think that’s what we are showing. That we are the shit, the ass and the nakedness all rotting away. And that’s humanity ... We can only make honest pictures by dragging them out from inside of ourselves.
(Quoted in A Arte de Gilbert & George, [p.25].)
In Naked Eye Gilbert and George appear as subjects and objects of their own gaze, and this visual structure is complemented by the pun on eye and I in the title. The artists’ own omniscient background gaze strips bare their frail flesh and judges harshly, as is indicated by the gesture of shame in covering their faces. The gesture recalls the shame of Adam and Eve, recounted in Book I of the Old Testament, Genesis chapters 2 and 3, in which they perceive their nakedness after eating the forbidden fruit and are cast out of the Garden of Eden for ever.
A Arte de Gilbert & George, exhibition catalogue, Centro Cultural de Belem, Lisbon 2002, [pp.76-83], reproduced [p.76] in colour
Gilbert & George: An Exhibition, exhibition catalogue, Kunsthaus Bregenz 2002
Gilbert & George: The Naked Shit Pictures, exhibition catalogue, South London Gallery 1995, reproduced pp.12-13 in colour