Keeping A Stiff Upper Lip

Gilbert is the shorter, younger fellow who looks like a vicar's assistant. George is bald, wears glasses and could be John Major's minister of modern art. They've been working as the single artistic entity "Gilbert & George" since they met in 1967 at St. Martin's School of Art in London. In the 20-odd years since they started making large "photo-pieces," they've become a mainstay among British cultural exports, a sort of Beatles for the smart set.

Now the old boys, with their pinched three-button suits and fussy libertinism, are at the new branch of The Tate Gallery on the renovated Albert Dock in Liverpool (through March 14) with "The Cosmological Pictures" (1989). Like all their series since the early 1980s, these are hand-colored photographic montages, as big as 11 feet by 35 feet, divvied up into rectangular modules by thin black metal frames that lend a windowpane effect. Most include Gilbert and George themselves-as angels, devils, disinterested observers or just compositional props. Many include handsome young working-class men posed in gay sendups of Victorian art's repressed heterosexual eroticism. And all 25 of them are suffused with Gilbert & George's trademark garishness that seems to ask, "Are you sure you know the difference between beautiful and ugly?"

In "Leaners" the artists tilt toward each other, as if seeking stiff-upper-lip refuge from the wet streets that, according to their biographer Wolf Jahn, signify "sexual polarity." The word leaners, of course, is a play on "bent," a Britishism for homosexual, and the picture's colors are psychedelicized pastels with which Charles Ludlam might have staged an Easter parade. In "Doubles," multiple Gilberts and Georges stand with mouths agape, screaming or singing, against the backdrop of a blossoming tree. As usual, George (born in England) is stern and scolding, while Gilbert (a native of the Dolomites in Italy) looks vulnerable and kind. The work is both a plea for tolerance of sexual difference and a defiance of those who don't get it.

The art of Gilbert & George is also about more philosophical things like nature versus culture. With Gilbert & George, culture always wins. Their flowers, trees and skies might as well have been bolted together in a Manchester factory. Nature, the artists imply, is just another little compartment we use to try to make sense of the world. (The ubiquitous black grid does double duty, as a symbol for thinking in pigeonholes, and as a way of making huge works conveniently portable.) Gilbert & George take the feigned uncriticalness of Andy Warhol (their recent work looks a lot like Andy's famous cow wallpaper) and add some Tom Stoppard-style narrative puzzles. The young black man who stares out in "Seen" may or may not be the eponymous object-after all, he's looking at us. And what about the little blue reflections of G&G in his eyes? How'd those guys get in our shoes in the gallery, and how did we get inside their heads? We end up as unsure about who's being seen as we are about the identity of Stoppard's "The Real Inspector Hound."

Rudi Fuchs, the show's German curator, makes an additional claim in the catalog: "'The Cosmological Pictures' are ... emotional panels stirring with passion." Not really. The artists are too discreet for political stridency; and in terms of carnal heat, Gilbert & George have been outdone, as critic Michael Corris has put it, "by domesticated Robert Mapplethorpe and [Jeff Koons and Cicciolina] doing the rumpy-pumpy in public." Let's be content with the fact that, after a quarter century of serving dada tea and pop-art crumpets on pre-Raphaelite china, Gilbert & George are still as witty, inventive and ambitious as true gentlemen can allow themselves to be.