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Dynamic Duo

Dynamic Duo


With a retrospective currently at the de Young Museum in San Francisco and a tour slated for later this year, the controversial art team Gilbert and George are about to remind America of the beauty of bad taste.

Polite, well-spoken gentlemen, Gilbert and George paraded dirty graffiti, pricks, profanity, and splashes of semen before a reluctant art world during the past 40 years. In 1969 they designed a preemptive strike on their critics titled George the Cunt and Gilbert the Shit. In the 1980s they began a series of images centered on their own body fluids. A British institution -- and a thorn in the side of conservatives -- the duo favors series titles like "Cunt Scum" while publicly lamenting that they can't find a good tailor these days.

Since graduating from art school and striking out on their own as "living sculptures" in the late 1960s, Gilbert and George have led an ordered existence that observers find creepy and delicious. They're rarely seen alone. They dress almost identically in suit and tie. They take their meals at the same local restaurants every day. Their house near Brick Lane in London's East End is famously without a kitchen. Back in 1967 when they moved in, they named the house Art for All. When they found graffiti outside that said GILBERT AND GEORGE ARE WANKERS AND TOSSERS, George responded to a journalist, "Well, we are. We were rather flattered by that. We photographed it to include in our work."

GINK: Gilbert & George, from "Gilbert & George: The Complete Pictures, 1971-2005"

Last year, despite opposition -- and lack of a corporate sponsor -- the Tate Modern hosted Gilbert and George's largest retrospective. A smaller version of that show is now at the de Young Museum in San Francisco and will travel to Milwaukee and Brooklyn, N.Y., later this year. I walked through the de Young exhibition with the artists on the day before it opened to the public. George's tie sported large black ants, while Gilbert's ants were magenta. They wore the same quiet suit, although George's was tan and Gilbert's was gray.

Inevitably, we gravitated toward The Penis (1978). A large multipanel photographic piece (like most of their mature work), it features the artists flanked by vague images of tree branches above a street scrawl of a cock ejaculating into a waiting mouth. The graffiti artist had added the unnecessary caption "Suck."

The artists describe their work as "unshocking"--an attempt to break down taboos by confronting the viewer. Their "SonofaGod" series makes rude use of Christian imagery; one of the strongest of these works, Was Jesus Heterosexual? (2005), was shown at the Tate but considered too risky for American audiences. More recently, the two have taken advantage of the fundamentalist Muslim stickers and graffiti that they've found on the streets near their home. For Gilbert and George, it's all bad religion--"all superstition." And yet even the devout can find reason to consider the artists' message. George tells of a woman who approached him in San Francisco and remarked, "As a committed Christian, I think you're asking all the right questions."

Working-class boys, they met as sculpture students at St. Martin's School of Art in London in 1967. They've described their work as a reaction against the clean formalism that dominated St. Martin's as well as against what they perceived as art world elitism. After their earliest performances in the late 1960s -- the period in which they dropped their last names, took on a collaborative identity, and defined their life's project -- they began making charcoal sketches closely based on photographs. They stopped these, they say, because people liked them too much. Says George, "That's not what we wanted."

Short films (including the 1972 video clip, Gordon's Makes Us Drunk) followed, along with scores of intentionally drab black-and-white photographs exhibited in clusters. "It took us four years to discover red," quips George. Although they now own a powerful graphic computer, which facilitates the gorgeous patterning of their recent work, until 2002 they made everything by hand.

While they relish the controversies they provoke, the artists take pride in being easily understood and using universal themes like sex, money, race, and religion as blatantly as a highway sign. Gilbert points at the nearest work, Winter Tongue Fuck (1982), and says with a smile, "Who wouldn't understand that?" At a public lecture the day after our conversation, they talk about the "moral dimension" that guides their art. "Art must invent the morality of the future," says George. And what is that morality? Gilbert leans forward: "Accept your neighbor."

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Regina Marler