Double talk

Give-and-take with Gilbert and George
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Gilbert and George's "England"

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PREVIEW I approached a meeting with Gilbert and George, the joined-at-the-hip-since-the-late-1960s so-called living sculpture, with some trepidation. How does one interact with such a well-honed identity in a way that resembles a real conversation? How do you talk to a work of art?

Thankfully, the pair are a burnished public entity with manners — and demeanors that may seem a bit canned but not exactly insincere. They wear their trademark suits: Gilbert, 65, the shorter, Italian-born half, in gray tweed, and George, 66, the slightly ruddy-skinned, bespectacled Brit, in beige. Their time-honored uniform sets them apart, though at the same time they could be ordinary insurance salesman: these suits don't seem like designer artifacts. The only hint at a subversive side are matching ties with splotches suggestive of some body fluid or another. The artists are warm and friendly, like real people, like a pair of eccentric uncles. Frankly, I'm a little disappointed that they're not particularly quirky, theatrical, or difficult to engage. Then again, a 40-year life and art partnership can result in a comfortable public face.

They give me a tour of their in-progress de Young Museum show. Even without much lighting, a magisterial, pop art stained-glass-window effect is apparent. The pieces are huge and colorful and address urban conditions, religious hegemony, and boys, boys, boys. There's barely a female figure to be seen in these galleries not long ago inhabited by Vivienne Westwood.

"Gilbert and George" is a reduced version of the Gilbert and George retrospective presented at the Tate Modern last year: "It was four times bigger," Gilbert states. (He seems to be the practical sort, frequently pointing to facts while George philosophizes.) Apparently, it was the largest such show the British museum has ever presented. A working model of the gallery is a key part of their process in plotting out their exhibition, and there's one on a table with tiny, hand-drawn versions of the expansive pieces on the wall. "We do all of this ourselves," Gilbert announces, referring to the layout, although more than once he makes that claim in terms of the production of their work. The tinted photo-collage work used to be done by traditional photographic and hands-on graphic arts techniques, though they shifted to working on the computer in 2001. "But you can't tell the difference," he boasts.

Among the first things they tell me is that a piece from 2005 titled Was Jesus Heterosexual? was edited out of the show's United States tour by the Brooklyn Museum for its religious content — not a shock given that was the site of the 1999 "Sensation" controversy that involved another generation of English artists and Christian icons. "All the American journalists in London say, 'How uptight you British are,' when it's really the other way around," George says wryly. I get the impression they enjoy the ruckus, as their work regularly generates lively debate: for example, their big pictures of turds, including a panoramic one on view here.

It comes as no surprise, then, that they're tickled by double entendres and randy references. Pointing to a typically large-scale work with the term spunk in the lower right corner, George expresses concern that it may not make sense here: "Do Americans even know that word? What is it here, jism?" I wonder if this is a playful, flattering ploy, as he speaks as if these were obscure terms, like I'm in on the secret. In a similar spirit, he asks me to identify a fuzzy gray image, instantly recognizable as a crab. "And not the kind you get at Fisherman's Wharf," Gilbert giddily interjects. As they make repeated references to a kind of authenticity — "We photograph everything ourselves," they say — I ask where they got the subject.

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