IN 1969 Gilbert and George presented themselves to the bemused art world as ``living sculptures,'' with their hands and faces bronzed, dressed in neat, old-fashioned bank-clerk suits, gesturing robotically to the strains of a comic song called ``Underneath the Arches.'' Nearly 20 years later, this ambiguous, disarmingly polite, impassively gazing duo, who work in the East End of London, is still bemusing the art world. Preferring to remain surnameless and calling their exhibitions ``one-man shows,'' they are still wearing what they call their ``responsibility suits'' (which look a great deal less peculiar today on their bland middle-aged personages than they did on their wan youthful ones), and still pursuing - though in rather different form - their odd, confused, provoking, banal notions of what art might be.
The extent to which the art world is bemused by Gilbert and George can be partly measured by the major exhibition of their work that toured the United States in 1984-85; by the award last year of the Tate Gallery's annual Turner Prize to them; and by the arrival now at the South Bank Centre's Hayward Gallery (through Sept. 26) of an enormous show of their ``Pictures 1982-1986'' at the end of a year-long tour on the Continent.
No longer acting as their own three-dimensional sculptures, they make pictures today that are composites of monochrome photographs, in which separate images are outlined in black and a simple use of strong, flat colors adds to an overall impression of out-of-date cereal-package graphics.
In these pictures their own sober-suited selves, depersonalized as ever, remain the chief protagonists and multiply like endless Warhols - ubiquitous icons, posing in a variety of attitudes, changing size at will, simultaneously egocentric and self-effacing. They are caught up in a fragmentary dream world, in which people (exclusively male) are merely objects, and the objects look like emblems. These often vast pictures - they choose to call a group produced in 1985 ``new moral works'' and have talked of them as ``sermons'' - are like crosses between billboards and Victorian stained-glass windows.
One of Gilbert and George's strong contentions is that ``the 20th century has been cursed with an art that cannot be understood. The decadent artists stand for themselves and their chosen few, laughing at and dismissing the normal outsider.''
They say they want their art, instead, to ``speak to people about their life and not about their knowledge of art.'' They want it to have easily accessible meaning.
But the fact is that it is jampacked with ambiguities and contradictions. By presenting themselves as not much more authentic than wax works or puppets, bland personae behind which their actual selves have evidently vanished, they render dubious everything they do or say. This public image appears and reappears in their pictures repetitively to the point of meaninglessness, like a phrase in a pop song.
If they relax their characteristically dispassionate stare, it is only to adopt some sub-theatrical mask - a horror-movie grotesque or a clown face. Their gestures are no more lifelike than those of cardboard cutouts or marionettes. Originally, perhaps, there was an element of mockery or satire in this. But now it has become just another art style - the very thing they profess a wish to avoid. They are hoisted with their own petard. Continually they contradict what they say by what they do.
What they sometimes want to do, rather obviously, is to shock. But again they haven't made up their minds - assuming that they want to deliver unambiguous messages - whether they are observing or promulgating the shocking. Are they participants in the street culture, the graffiti-provocations, the perversions they hint or present? Or are they buttoned-up, moralizing observers? They swing from suggestions and hints to overstated images of cartoon crudity. Are they polite, or are they ragingly impolite? If they seriously intend a moral stance in their work and a clear communication of it, then a differentiation between what they consider ``good'' and ``bad'' has to be presented. It isn't. Their art, and their symbol-personages in it, shift position unpredictably, seemingly stiff, seemingly acrobatic, seemingly uninvolved, seemingly involved, seemingly moral, seemingly amoral.
Does their art then present the world as it is, with all its dilemmas and enigmas, leaving decisions and choices to the viewer? Again, not really. The images they select are far from universal. The absence of women in their subject matter is strikingly partial. It has led some critics to find ``homo-erotic'' tendencies in their work - something Gilbert and George deny. But can you believe them? The presence in their more recent pictures of a rather thuggish array of young men might be taken to indicate such an interest, or equally it might symbolize a concern with street violence, or be a deliberate and wry contrast with the timid, middle-aged, introverted character of their own personae. Once again the art they claim is so open to comprehension is, in fact, tangled in reticence, secrecy, and ambiguity. Making it large and highly colored, as they are increasingly doing, makes no difference.
There is similar ambiguousness in their use of religious symbols - the cross in particular. Do they view it religiously or sacrilegiously? Likewise, their use of slogan titles, instead of giving meaning to the pictures, tends to emphasize their equivocalness.
One of the high-sounding statements they made in 1986 for the current exhibition's catalog says: ``The true function of Art is to bring about new understanding, progress and advancement.'' What can this strange little double act really think such a platitudinous pronouncement means?
Perhaps something they wrote back in 1969 may come closer to their actual motivation. It was Number 2 in their ``Laws of the Sculptors.'' It read: ``Make the world to believe in you and to pay heavily for this privilege.''