Bent empire

Gilbert and George crap out rainbow wonders

REVIEW Holy glowing gonads! That's what popped into my head — as my eyes popped out — when I entered the second room of the de Young Museum's gorgeous "Gilbert and George" exhibition, which encompasses 30 years and 65 pieces of the British duo's video, graphic, and two-dimensional sculpture work. There, two neon-explosive series of four humongous photomontages — Death Hope Life Fear (1984) and Shitty Naked Human World (1994) — are hung directly opposite each other, tugging the viewer into a phosphorescent hallway of actual shit and roses.

The first quadripartite series is peppered with the pair's customary images of ethnically diverse underage hustlers, English roses, and collaged ziggurats of the artists themselves, magically combined to suggest all that was evil and delicious about the Thatcherite '80s. The second, famously, floats giant turds against a backdrop of luminescent color and naked shots of the artists' ass cracks and shriveled penises. Both sets are gloriously naughty, and when I caught a glimpse of prim society matron Dee Dee Wilsey standing perplexed beneath World's giant ball of flying crap, I almost lost it.

The rest of the exhibit goes on like this: feces fly, sperm spurts, blood boils, men and boys bare all, and enough sacred cows are roasted to fill a few Sizzler menus. And always, the deadpan artists peek through the mayhem like two chipped teacups adrift on a postcolonial ocean of desire. Even though Gilbert was born in Italy, the inseparable pair, with their matching worsted suits, impeccable manners, and sexually coy public personae, are so very British. Surely they're commenting, from their tidy little studio in Spitalfields, East London, on the wreck and temptations of empire?

The show's first room, dedicated to the artists' early graphic work, contains some excellent aesthetic tingles but mostly concerns itself visually with a rote investigation of the possibilities of red, white, and black. You can sense Gilbert and George limiting their palette to a trio of fussy tones perhaps to excuse their content, fairly outré for the '70s fine art world: spray-painted penis graffiti (1978's The Penis), sticky puns on orientalism (1974's Cherry Blossom No. 1), and other furtive steps into the realm of rebellious hyperinfantilism they would soon make their own.

It was during this nascent period that Gilbert and George developed their singular style: mixing multiple photographs of themselves with those of their immediate environs to make a single image, then blowing it up enormously and subdividing it into a grid of framed panels hung flush with one another, like a stained-glass window of perfect squares. As their artistic journey progressed and as the show winds through the basement galleries, their pictures burst with clashing tints and increasingly weirder experiments with displaced symmetry.

Various themes — '80s youth-culture fetishism (for hipsters infatuated with fluorescent leg warmers, this is the show of the century), the tormented and fashionable spiritual journeys of the '90s, a pungent streak of antipapism, and more than a few dips into pedophilia — are given the scatological Manic Panic rainbow treatment. Then the 2006 Terror pictures arrive, made in response to the London bus bombings, and the palette recollapses into a stunned black, red, and white, the English roses become torturous thorns, and pilfered headlines like "Police Quiz Bomb Suspect's Father" are scrawled across each panel. So maybe there are limits?

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