Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1987
Dieter Ronte, Hess Collection, Stuttgart 1989, p. 75, no. 51, illustrated in colour
Rudi Fuchs, Gilbert and George: The Complete Pictures 1971-2005, Vol. I, London 2007, p. 286, illustrated in colour
Donald M. Hess, Hess Art Collection, Osfildern 2009, p. 133, illustrated in colour
David Christopher, British Culture: An Introduction, New York 2015, p. 203 (text)
Executed in 1977, a year of political and social unrest in England, Shag Stiff points to the acceleration in social and cultural disaffection that was in part born of the anti-establishment punk rock movement that gained momentum in the same year. Stripping back romantic notions of the city, Shag Stiff is infused with the vital sheen of contemporaneity, a timeless appeal that still thoroughly engages with our own modern day society. Speaking of this moment Gilbert recalls, “England was so run down in 1975, 1976, 1977, it was totally anarchic, with big piles of rubbish lying in Leicester Square, with super-flies and super-rats…” while George added, “Continental people saw England as a big pile of shit with a punk rock waving a swastika on top of it” (Gilbert and George cited in: Michael Bracewell, ‘Writing the Modern World’ in: Exh. Cat., London, Serpentine Gallery, Gilbert and George: Dirty Words Pictures, 2002, p. 15). The present work is flanked on each side by two columns of red photographs that depict steel drum players and punctuated in the middle by two black and white images of a modernist office block. As with other works in this series, these images are derived from the artists’ East London environs.
Having introduced red into their oeuvre for the first time in 1974, the intense red inventions in the Dirty Word Pictures series come to evocatively accentuate the potency of the surrounding black and white images. As George elaborated, "We were looking for a more aggressive, more powerful image. Red has more strength than black. Black and white is powerful but red on top of it is even more so. It's louder" (George cited in: Carter Ratcliff, op. cit., p. XXIII).
The overwhelming scope and ambition achieved in Shag Stiff, and the Dirty Word Pictures as a wider whole, demonstrates a new level of compositional rigour that is self-consciously transgressive, cementing aesthetic order from the chaos and conflict the artists experienced around them. The regular grid structure that was introduced in earnest in Cherry Blossom, 1974, has been tightened in the present work by eliminating the gaps between each component of the grid to give a more coherent, vital work that assumes a mural-like quality. The unifying architectonic structure of the grid takes on a double function and intriguingly also serves to break up the pictorial field, highlighting Gilbert and George’s central preoccupation with the fractured nature of the city. In doing so, the notion of the city that Gilbert and George present in Shag Stiff is not a real one, but a mental conception of the metropolis as a duality where the crowd is at once an anonymous throng and a mass of highly individualised figures. As the artists themselves have said: “to walk the streets of London is to walk the streets of the world” (Gilbert and George cited in: Lisa Corrin, ‘Are you angry or are you boring?’, in: op. cit., 2003, p. 31).
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