In their famous artist statement, What Our Art Means (1986), Gilbert & George announced: "We invented and we are constantly developing our own visual language. We want the most accessible modern form with which to create the most modern speaking visual pictures of our time. The art-material must be subservient to the meaning and purpose of the picture. Our reason for making pictures is to change people and not to congratulate them on being how they are." (Gilbert & George, in What Our Art Means, 1986.)
Their unique method of creating photomontages, which consists in making a preliminary sketch coloured with inks and watercolours in order to assess compositional and colour relations, followed by a more accurate drawing in a grid, to scale and numbered and finally, a lay-out coloured with photographic tints, allows the artists to simultaneously develop both the form and the content of the image and to immediately spot new connections as they are make it. Their methodical approach in the making of images permits them to focus right from the start on the end result, never allowing form to overtake the impact of the image.
In Tree Naked, from the series New Democratic Pictures, the stark palette and the exuberantly complex composition have a typically startling impact on the viewer. The semi-cross like structure of the artists' bodies thrown into an unnatural perspective, the sprawling expanse of the branches of a tree, the blood red sky and the ferocious glare of disproportionately large eyes looming out at the viewer conjure up a confusing mêlée of disturbing associations: the tree could be the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, the naked artists Man expelled from the Garden of Eden, the cross the Crucifixion, the blood the blood of Christ, the watchful manic eyes the Devil - or even God?
Like Francis Bacon, an artist whom Gilbert and George most closely associate with, they seek to create something akin to "the ghastly frightening image that ended up on canvas..."(George, in interview with Martin Gayford, reproduced in Gilbert and George, Galleria d'Arte Moderna di Bologna, Bologna 1996.) Above all, the form must not overtake the power of the image.
Religious imagery is a recurring presence in much of Gilbert and George's work, but their relationship to religion is highly ambiguous, as they state categorically in the same interview:
Gayford: Do you think there's any chance of you're getting religion?
Gilbert: Not for one second! I hate fucking religion.
George: We're religious in the sense of moral fibre, we all come from a Christian culture. And we hate the idea of normal 20th century artists saying they're atheists, it's just too snobbish. Obviously the cleaning lady goes to church.
Gilbert: We would take the church to court if we could.
George: We think they should come under the Trades Description Act.
Gilbert: Because they're lying.
Gayford: You use religious imagery quite a bit.
George: We're for and against.
Gilbert: We love it and hate it, that's what it is.
Gayford: Did you come from religious backgrounds?
Gilbert: I was brought up an extreme Catholic.
George: And I was extreme Protestant. Methodist. Like Mrs. Thatcher.
Whether intentionally echoing religious iconography or not, the composition of Tree Naked, combined with its monumental size make it a powerful example of Gilbert and George's continuing ability to jolt the viewer out of complacency, precisely not to "congratulate them on being how they are." (Gilbert and George, What Our Art Means, 1986).