'We like it very much when the pictures take over. When theyre bigger than the viewer. You go to a museum to look at a picture, but we like it when the picture looks at you ...We want to dominate the viewer with the forces of art. Because art can change people. We believe that' (Gilbert & George quoted in C. Ratcliff, Gilbert & George: The Complete Pictures 1971-1985, London, 1986, p. X).
Stretching over 24 individually framed photographs, Gilbert & George's FROZEN YOUTH is a vast, vibrantly coloured image, dedicated to the adoration of eternal youth and beauty. The work derives from the Modern Faith series originally conceived for the Sonnabend Gallery, New York in 1983 and represents the ascent of a new era in Gilbert & George's art which would lead to their award of the Turner Prize in 1998. In this period, their 'pictures' became bigger, brighter and bolder, as they began to introduce numerous figures in increasingly complex tableaux. This work, however, is notable for its bold simplicity and perfect symmetry, perhaps a reference to the foundations of beauty as theorised throughout history. Framed by pillars of red, Gilbert & George sit centrestage, gazing out expectantly at the viewer in their signature matching suits. Behind them is the eponymous youth, his high-contrast features flattened and simplified with the iconographic stylings of a propaganda poster. He has been placed against a snowbound windowpane and symbolically painted blue, yet the metaphor embedded in the title extends beyond these visual puns. There is a poignancy to the work, an underlying sense of melancholy despite the beatific intensity of its exuberant colours, for this young man can be seen as a veritable Dorian Gray, his youthful visage frozen forever by the artists lens - a reminder of the inevitable march of time.
Many of the pictures within this series, including the present work, went on tour with Gilbert & George's first retrospective in the United States the following year. The Modern Faith series addressed the yearning for spiritual belief and love in the face of life's cruel realities. The powerfully emblematic images of leaves, flowers, full moons and religious iconography that populate these pictures all implicitly refer to an impending sense of mortality. In FROZEN YOUTH, Gilbert & George convey this idea elegantly by suggesting the ambitions and anxieties of our age-obsessed society. Each pictorial element of FROZEN YOUTH is surrounded by a black outline, often described as corresponding to stained glass windows. This feature, as well as the protagonist's upraised glace, provides the image with a certain devotional strain, and it appears Gilbert & George are posed as if they too are worshippers of the cult of youth. The artists had reached early middle age by the time they created FROZEN YOUTH, a fact that may account for the wistful, elegiac tone present in much of their work at this time. It is as if they have selected a moment of life in their young model that represents perfection, before the inevitable decay and decline into death. It is a bittersweet picture, both celebratory and sad.
Significantly perhaps, both artists had entered adolescence in the postwar era that gave birth to the Teenager. The moral panics, romantic myths, and popular culture that was constructed by and around this generation gave way to the youthquake of the sixties, which broadened youth culture into expressions of free love, new fashions, new music and creative drug use. Young people were now able to condemn their elders and 'betters' and to stick two fingers up at convention. Although Gilbert & George have never fallen into the vagaries and traps of fashion, their anti-conformist stance is certainly, in part, a product of this sea-change in cultural attitudes. They began to push the boundaries of what is acceptable in art and life ever since their time studying at Central St. Martins in the late sixties, where they rejected the overwhelming focus on formalism and materiality in art at that time.
Following their conviction that art should be to be as true to life as possible, they decided to establish their very existence as the subject, object and intent of their work. In the process, Gilbert & George have created an honest 'warts and all' portrait of modern reality using everyday inspirations. The most consistent theme in their work has been the social and spiritual situation of contemporary urban man. Initially, the duo focussed only on themselves, photographing scenes of inebriation and boorishness in the Drinking Sculptures, or the bleak interiors of their unfinished house in Dusty Corners, Dead Boards and Shadow pictures of the early 1970s. These in turn opened out onto gritty portraits of their run down neighbourhood. As their subject matter expanded to encompass the teeming life of the city around them, their technical proficiency also developed. They installed special lighting equipment in their studio and began employing models to pose for their increasingly ambitious compositions. In the early 1980s, they mastered their distinctive technique of colouring and dramatically enlarging their subjects beyond the confines of individual, gridded units. This method has been used in FROZEN YOUTH to amplify the young mans face to a monumental scale: a deliberate act of confrontation on the part of Gilbert & George.