GILBERT & GEORGE. Their mural-size images startle and provoke, but do they really deserve `sacred cow' status?

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I must admit to a begrudging respect for Gilbert and George. They are obviously dedicated and well intentioned, and they have challenged and enlivened the art world in many interesting ways these past 15 or so years. Their work is highly professional and impressive, and it combines photographic, poster, and painting styles and techniques in an altogether novel manner. Their large photo-pieces are effective in a dramatically coloristic and decorative sort of way, and when it comes to translating ideas into provocative pictorial images, the last decade or so has seldom seen their match. Any exhibition of their work is a visually stimulating event -- as all those viewing Gilbert and George's current Guggenheim Museum retrospective here quickly discover. Beginning at the fourth level of the circular museum ramp, and extending all the way down to and including the rotunda, the visitor is confronted by one huge and aggressively colored picture after another. Each is primarily photographic in derivation, drenched with sharply contrasting colors, and exists to startle, to provoke -- and it is hoped to plant the seeds of a new way of perceiving a hitherto little-examined aspect of contemporary life.

Whether it does or not is as much up to the visitor at this point as it originally was up to the artists. The organizers of the exhibition -- it was shown originally at the Baltimore Museum of Art -- created what they hoped was the appropriate context by selecting 68 outstanding examples of these artists' work and by then hanging them as effectively as possible. They also helped by producing an illustrated catalog that is extremely valuable for its color reproductions if somewhat less so for its text.

But who are Gilbert and George? Quite simply, they are two Englishmen who met in 1967 when both were art students in London, and who decided almost immediately to fuse their talents and lives to become one artist. Their collaboration has been total, with each sharing equally in the art-making, and both becoming as competent as the other in every aspect of their work.

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As Brenda Richardson points out in her somewhat hero-worshipping catalog introduction, ``They are correctly polite to each other at all times; they never interrupt one another, although they often finish each other's paragraphs at alternating sentence pauses; neither is observedly subservient to the other. . . . They work on the same drawing jointly; it is impossible to ascertain uniquely distinguishing features of the hand of either in any given work. . . . They conceptualize in tandem and claim never to reach widely divergent creative resolutions. Each offers constant constructive support to the other. Negative criticism is gently proffered and instantly withdrawn if offense is taken.''

They began their joint career as ``living sculpture,'' gilding or painting themselves, and then posing informally or speaking before audiences in public places. This led gradually to some other art forms, and then, in 1971, to their first photo-pieces.

These are very large, often mural-size works comprising multiple panels combined to create either separate pictorial elements within the image as a whole, or to establish an overall compositional grid-system. Each photo-piece consists of from one to a dozen or more individual items arranged frontally or serially, and it is generally so saturated with starkly contrasting colors as to resemble an oversize, brilliantly hued photo-montage.

The subjects Gilbert and George deal with range from human relationships and sociopolitical deprivation to nature and religion. They are presented in a bold, blatant, occasionally static iconic style that bears certain resemblances to Pop-Art. The artists themselves often appear in their works, either as protagonists or as ``guides'' to the viewer's involvement with a picture's theme or imagery.

Whatever help the viewer can get in deciphering the photo-pieces is more than welcome, since the artists go to great lengths to assure that their images remain enigmatic and emotionally distancing. Only the aggressive coloration and dramatic interplay of forms in their works insist that the viewer pay attention; everything else remains oblique, subtly paradoxical, and aloof.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to become engaged with the art of Gilbert and George on any other than purely sensory or intellectual levels. The stridency of their color and the enigmatic, often frankly narcissistic nature of their imagery challenge and provoke us, but any attempt on our part to get closer, to ``enter'' their work is firmly and unequivocally rebuffed.

Now, there's nothing wrong with that. Icons and certain other types of purely symbolic art often have a cooling and distancing effect upon all but ``true believers'' -- and the art of Gilbert and George is nothing if not iconic and symbolic. Indeed, those who ``believe'' in what they do have no trouble responding enthusiastically to their imagery, and have, in fact, been known to insist that Gilbert and George are among the major artists of our time.

This perception of their art, quite frankly, appalls me. Respect for their seriousness, skill, and good intentions is one thing; belief in their importance as major artists is quite another. For all their pictorial effectiveness, they remain strictly minor-league -- although they do have a ge-nius for making pictorial mountains out of conceptual molehills and for waging an extremely subtle but superb publicity campaign.

Thanks to both, Gilbert and George now enjoy something very close to ``sacred cow'' status in the art world, meaning that their work is almost beyond challenge or question, and that any critical writing pertaining to their art must begin with a presumption of its importance if it is to be taken seriously by the art community.

That, unfortunately, only adds one more layer of myth and confusion to the layers that have accrued over the years, making the truth of their art all that more difficult to sort out. Gilbert and George's photo-pieces are the perfect argument for the belief that art should be looked at in the light of what it is rather than in the light of the art-world mystique surrounding it. Their work is interesting, even fascinating at times, and every once in a while, as in their huge ``Life Without End'' and the quite extraordinary ``Frozen Youth'' and ``Winter Flowers,'' it even comes close to making a major statement.

Overall, however, they fall far short of achieving the kind of significance their fans believe they have. Size, stridency, and brilliant packaging, after all, are no substitutes for substance. When all is said and done, I'm afraid, Gilbert and George represent show business more than they do significant art.

At the Guggenheim Museum through June 16.

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