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For These Artists, Their Medium Is Their Identity

EVERY MORNING FOR about the past 50 years, the artists George Passmore, 81, and Gilbert Prousch, 79, have put on what they refer to as their “responsibility suits”: nearly identical, typically tweed outfits with matching ties and Church’s shoes. They read the same newspaper (The Daily Telegraph), watch the same TV show (“Law & Order”) and patronize the same restaurant (a Turkish barbecue spot), where they order the same meals until they feel sick enough to try something new. (When I visited them last December, they’d been eating a half-kebab apiece for three months.) They stroll the same narrow blocks in and around Spitalfields, the East London neighborhood where they’ve become mascots, photographing iterations of the same objects — including coins, locks and security systems — which they later catalog in binders organized by subject and year in a studio behind the 18th-century house they’ve occupied since 1968. They’ve never cooked a meal at home. They don’t even have a kitchen. Passmore described their way of living as “extraordinary freedom.”

Although they used to watch three movies a day, they haven’t gone to the cinema since seeing “The Deer Hunter” in 1978. That year, they also stopped attending parties, plays and other people’s openings. (“They only ask us silly questions,” said Prousch.) And yet, despite the discipline required for such a routine — an articulation of sameness that has become an endless exercise in self-inflicted otherness — neither of them would acknowledge it as an affect. “We don’t call it a performance,” said Prousch; they use the term “living sculpture.” “We never discussed it,” he added. “It’s something that happened to us as much as something we did,” said Passmore.

There are many artists who’ve created transformational work in which they appear in costume. The photographer Cindy Sherman, 69, made her name by embodying — and then proceeding to dismantle — stereotypes of womanhood in the guise of valley girls and femmes fatales. (When asked in a 2008 interview if her work is narcissistic, Sherman replied, “It’s maybe about me … not wanting to be me.”) Gillian Wearing, 59, has worn masks to impersonate not only other famous photographers and her own family members but also herself at different ages. (“I am a myriad array of personas, like everyone else,” she once remarked.) The appropriation artist Yasumasa Morimura, 72, has inserted himself into classic works from the Western canon, becoming facsimiles of Vincent van Gogh and Sherman herself. (“What does any identity — national, racial, sexual — mean?” he wondered in a 2018 essay for Artforum.)

Gilbert & George’s “Singing Sculpture” (1970).Credit…Snowdon/Trunk Archives

For Gilbert & George, though, who began their relationship in 1967, the same year it became legal to be gay in England, their work might never have been possible had they not adopted a costume first. It gave them permission to do whatever they wanted, an idea on which they would build their career. “It’s easy to get away with talking dirty when you’re well dressed,” said Passmore, alluding to some of their more inflammatory photo collages, like the 2013 “Scapegoating Pictures,” in which their torsos have been replaced by canisters of nitrous oxide and which include phrases such as “vomit in the vestry” and “defend our decadents.”

It’s a privilege to be able to wear a costume rather than a uniform in life, a provocation long reserved for pop stars and rock bands. But the practice has become more democratic: Nowadays, it can feel easier to renegotiate identities than salaries. On social media, where we can present as celebrities in our own minds, and elsewhere, we are constantly reinventing how we show ourselves to the world, inching ever closer to an ideal and that much further from what was once considered fixed or predetermined.

As much as the costume has become a universal expression of just how adaptable personality can be, there are a handful of artists who’ve explored this idea more intensely and with greater commitment than others. It’s no coincidence that those most dedicated to becoming different, exaggerated, apotheosized versions of themselves — an endeavor that can push the limits of normal human endurance — are frequently gay men, so many of whom have known from an early age that there’s power, or at least safety, in keeping something essential about yourself hidden.

NO OTHER ARTIST has been as devoted as Gilbert & George to maintaining a persona (they even present as a single identity: not “Gilbert and George,” but “Gilbert & George”). On the day of our interview, a few months before the opening of the new Gilbert & George Centre, a museum devoted to their art, Passmore answered the door in a speckled ocher suit and a yellow tie with a moth motif. Prousch, whose jacket and pants were a mossy green, went with beetles. As committed as they’ve been to living, in Passmore’s words, as “two people, one artist,” the simplest explanation as to why they initially decided to dress this way might be that other artists at the time weren’t. They saw an opportunity — not to mention a kind of borrowed dignity — in bourgeois acceptability, especially when they weren’t getting much respect from the art world. “We didn’t like the idea,” said Passmore, “of the artist as a freaky person who was ill dressed or had a beard or —” “Whiskers,” Prousch shuddered. One is always finishing the other’s thought. “We wanted to be respectable,” said Passmore. “Not the dirty artist in the corner with a pipe,” Prousch clarified.

David McDermott (right) and Peter McGough, known as the New York art duo McDermott & McGough, photographed in 1991 wearing their everyday Victorian-era attire.Credit…© 1991, Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

In 1970, three years into their partnership and after studying at St. Martin’s School of Art (now Central Saint Martins), Gilbert & George participated in a group show at Nigel Greenwood’s London gallery. In their matching ensembles and with metallic makeup covering their faces, the duo stood atop a table and sang Flanagan and Allen’s 1932 standard “Underneath the Arches.” By this point, they’d visited every gallery in London’s Time Out listings, trying unsuccessfully to find representation. “But we still wanted to be artists,” said Prousch, “so we had this crazy idea: ‘Maybe we could be the art.’” What began as a rebuttal to the establishment — their very presence was a rejection of conceptualism, which they considered to be elitist and inaccessible — became their trademark. Around that time, the German art dealer Konrad Fischer, who died in 1996, became intrigued by the pair. Using Fischer’s Rolodex as their personal mailing list, they sent out their “Postal Sculptures,” hundreds of postcard-size artworks, to collectors and dealers worldwide. “We didn’t have a gallery,” said Passmore. “But we could go to the post office.”

Although today their style seems more like a charming anachronism than an actual disruption, the duo’s professionalized attire and carefully ordered lives gave them latitude, at a time when frank discussions and depictions of homosexuality were still considered shocking in many quarters, to explore queer desire as a naughty provocation rather than something to be judged or ignored. Maybe it was also a way to come out of the closet while leaving the door ajar. “We were more for sexual freedom than any particular type of sexual freedom,” said Passmore. “We wanted to keep it open,” said Prousch. “If not, they categorize you into a niche.”

IN LIVING FOR the sake of their art, Gilbert & George predated New York in the late 1970s and early ’80s, the place creative people went to become someone else. Andy Warhol, a Catholic boy from Pittsburgh with bad skin and a neurological disease that caused him to twitch involuntarily, would refashion himself as Studio 54’s Willy Wonka in a silver wig. Klaus Nomi, a Bavarian pastry chef by day, sang arias and operatic pop songs in spacesuits at downtown clubs and Off Broadway theaters at night. In a 2019 memoir, “I’ve Seen the Future and I’m Not Going,” the painter Peter McGough, 65, who moved from Syracuse at 19, describes a city of cockroaches and characters: a Judy Garland impersonator named Walter; a stripper and her ostrich puppet; an old woman who wore a dead sardine for an earring.

The Philadelphia-based sculptor and video artist Alex Da Corte in character as the rapper Eminem.Credit…Alex Da Corte

McGough met David McDermott at New Wave Vaudeville, an avant-garde variety show held in 1978 at a concert venue near Gramercy Park. Although McDermott, the night’s M.C., appeared onstage as a pharaoh, McGough, as he writes in his book, was more intrigued by what he wore after the performance: “a full-dress tail suit with a stiff-starched bright white bib shirt front with studs, a detachable wing collar with a perfectly tied piqué white bow and black patent leather dancing pumps.” Since the age of 14, McDermott, who was born in Hollywood, decided to reject the present by dressing in the past.

If Gilbert & George were still existing within (and reacting against) the world around them, McDermott and McGough took the idea of the costume much further, using it as a wholesale refusal of modern life: For much of the 1980s and into the ’90s, the couple lived together as though it were the Victorian era. Upon taking over a new apartment, McDermott would tear out the radiators, disconnect the electricity and wallpaper over the breaker panel. In the summer, unlit candles melted in the Manhattan heat; by winter, in their home upstate, unattended glasses of water often froze. They filled the rooms with antiques, and whenever they bought something like talcum powder, they immediately emptied the contents into old glass jars. The art they made as McDermott & McGough — homoerotic paintings, photographs and films — was, according to McDermott, secondary to the more important work of their so-called time experiments. When McDermott first signed both their names on a piece, McGough recalled him saying, “Now I have you forever.” An already complicated bond was strained when they brought a third boyfriend, a champion dressage rider, into the relationship.

For McGough, a costume was a way to imagine a gentler reality. From a young age, he would disappear into the world of his drawings, a place where “no one would insult me, slap me or call me a faggot,” he said last November from his studio in Bushwick, Brooklyn. While being harassed one night walking to their place on Avenue C — McDermott and McGough kept their horse-drawn carriage at their property in Oak Hill, N.Y. — they were saved by a drug dealer who recognized them by their matching black capes. “Hey!” he called out to the man who’d been bothering them. “You leave those two alone!” With the emergence of AIDS, their anachronistic lifestyle not only protected them in that it denied the events of the present but also proved that the gay experience couldn’t be reduced to a disease. “People would tell me, ‘Well, you’re just escaping,’” said McGough. “I said, ‘Maybe, but that’s what I’m interested in.’”

Da Corte as the Statue of Liberty.Credit…Alex Da Corte

Today, McGough looks back on his years with McDermott, from whom he’s estranged, as a “failed utopia.” (Through an email from his agent, McDermott, now 72 and living in Ireland — and dressing as a 1920s dandy — said: “At one point, Peter decided he questioned his existence … he thought, ‘This isn’t me, I have been constructed by David McDermott and turned into this old-fashioned person, which I really never wanted to be.’”) For a while, though, it offered them both emotional comfort and financial gain. At the height of their success, they employed a staff of 14 people, including a personal chef; by 1992, with the art market in a lull, McDermott was borrowing money from acquaintances. “There’s nothing left of the material world we shared,” said McGough. “Cut. End scene.” These days, he’s more likely to be spotted wearing a pastel linen jacket than a top hat. He even owns a cellphone; in fact, he painted one into a more recent work, “The Last Selfie” (2020), in which a young man, neck deep in a polluted lake, poses for his own photo as everything around him burns.

But he still has respect for that magical fortress he made with McDermott. “David showed me a world that was disappearing,” said McGough, nostalgia creeping into his voice. “I’m really lucky I saw it.”

COSTUMES GAVE GILBERT & George enough distance from society to critique it, and McDermott & McGough the courage to escape it. For the 43-year-old artist Alex Da Corte, they offer freedom from something even more immediate: himself. When I spoke to Da Corte in April, he was about to travel to Japan for “Fresh Hell,” his first solo museum show in Asia and an unsettling rumination on how capitalism has reduced people to consumers. I wanted to talk to the Venezuelan American painter, sculptor and video artist because, more than any of his peers, he has chosen costumes as his medium. The new exhibition featured 11 brightly colored video installations in which he played vaguely sinister, often uncanny versions of Mariah Carey, the caterpillar from “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” the Statue of Liberty and a bottle of ketchup, among other characters. From one scene to the next, Da Corte was unrecognizable in goofy clothes and heavy makeup.

“I’m interested in how people use costumes to find agency to say things they can’t on their own,” he’d said from Rome, where he was also preparing a stop-motion animated opera for a Marisol Escobar retrospective at the Buffalo AKG Art Museum, in which he’ll play 15 versions of the sculptor, who rose to fame in the mid-60s. As a white- and straight-passing Latino gay man with Crohn’s disease, he’s been performing his entire life. “Even if I’m falling apart inside, if I have a colostomy bag, my struggles aren’t for you,” he said. “I shroud them and cover them. You can’t see that anguish.”

Earlier, he had told me, “The person I thought I was on the outside was different than the inside. This house I had relied on, the inside was falling apart. So I gave myself license to jump bodies.” Da Corte wondered why, if he could present as one thing while secretly living as another, anyone’s identity or beliefs should be absolute. “There’s room for negotiation there,” he said. “And change.”

Da Corte as the animator Jim Henson.Credit…Alex Da Corte. Photo: James Emmerman

In October 2010, when he was 30 and still living at home, he made a Michael Myers costume and wore it to stalk his parents. Every night for weeks, he’d change into a boiler suit and then, knife in hand, his face obscured by a latex mask he’d painted white, hide in the bushes outside the house in Haddonfield, N.J. — after which the town in “Halloween” (1978) is named — where, for about an hour, he’d spy on them washing the dishes or watching the evening news. By observing the couple who’d nurtured him into adulthood unawares, he hoped to see them not as his providers or cheerleaders but as people — albeit people he was shadowing as a serial killer. “Was it possible,” he wondered, “that Myers,” sometimes referred to as the boogeyman, “was just a person, too?”

Da Corte has come to think of his costumes as possessions. The possessions have gotten more elaborate over the years. For his contribution to the 2022 Whitney Biennial, the artist spent 14 hours in hair and makeup to become Rrose Sélavy, Marcel Duchamp’s drag persona from the 1920s. But Da Corte doesn’t limit himself to the parameters of a shoot or a stage, making it hard to separate the artist from his work. In 2020, he was photographed for a fashion magazine as Allan Kaprow, the artist who coined the term “happening” to describe a type of collective performance piece. The following year, he showed up as Jim Henson to promote his Calderesque sculpture that prominently featured Big Bird, one of Henson’s creations, on the roof of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. “I have zero relationship to my body,” Da Corte said. “In fact, I find it kind of incidental to my being.”

It can be difficult to tell when, if ever, Da Corte lowers the mask. I almost expected him to show up to our interview over Zoom in costume. He wore a faded black T-shirt instead. His graying hair was his own, as was the stubble across his chin. When he smiled, his nose, which turns up at the end, wrinkled a bit as if he were being tickled. And when he paused to think, creases emerged across his forehead. His eyes, which are brown and warm, were vulnerable as he considered the work he makes — the beautiful, sturdy houses he’s built in an increasingly volatile world, where authenticity is so often a liability. Or, to Da Corte, a novelty. “I do wonder,” he said, looking directly into the camera, “what it would be like to play myself.”

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