Bad news for the poster boys

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Gilbert and George's crime-themed London Pictures uses material from the streets near their home, but Adrian Hamilton wonders if the artists have reached a dead end

After Damien Hirst's mass showing of his dot pictures with the Gagosian Gallery, Gilbert and George follow their own Urethra Postcard pictures of last year with an even more ambitious display of their latest London Pictures 2011.

The White Cube gallery can't quite compete with Hirst's global show in 11 galleries covering four continents, being confined to Hong Kong and their three galleries in London. Still, that's a total of 292 pictures (of which 72 are in London) taken from no less than 3,712 newspaper posters taken from the London streets around their East End home.

There's nothing wrong with such proclivity. The daring duo have long worked in series and from bits of printed ephemera gathered up over the years, collated, categorised and then used in a burst of creative assemblage that deliberately avoids "art-making" in the interests of communicating common feelings. The Urethra series of jingoistic images and cards advertising sexual services in telephone boxes totalled 564. The series may have lacked the hand-made quality of more conventional art – although they were all the product of very considered composition and preparation – but they have always been striking, engaging and often touching.

So too with the latest series. They are based on the classic London billboards for evening and morning newspapers collected over six years and then sorted as to the key word – "killer", "boy", "school", "gang" and so on. The headlines, with the keywords in bright red, have then been put together in groupings of anything between four and 50 ruled squares and superimposed on photographic images of themselves and the streets around their East End corner of London. The background is black and white save for the flesh colours of the duo. All the pictures are locked at the bottom right by the head of the Queen, taken from coins, with the title above.

Where they differ from the postcard works is that Gilbert and George are back once more in all the pictures. Where they also differ from past pictures is in the complexity, or at least subtlety, of the images. The two artists are great moralists, for all their reputation of crudity. They may not believe in art as ennobling or valuable in itself (clearly they don't) but they do believe in the power of art to change minds and to represent the complexities of the diurnal life around them. If their imagery and materials have sometimes shocked, as indeed it has, then it has been in the interests of freeing people by giving voice to the secret and sometimes discreditable desires in us all.

With the London Pictures, however, they have tried something different. They still want to change people but this time not in order to free them but to confront them with the reality of crime, fear and victimisation. The original poster, they argue, shouts a message and then is discarded. The sources and consequences are there well before and last long after. "Sorrow, shame and disgrace – this is our modern world" and they have set out to communicate not just the events that are headlined but the texture of society in which they are happening.

It's a much more delicate path that they tread than in any previous series, because they are trying to combine the directness of the billboard with the elusiveness of the mood and emotions behind. They do it by using the imagery of the net curtain, the street scene caught in the side mirror of a car, the close up of brick and shop front, the tangent of building rising upwards and, above all, by the way in which they depict themselves phased in to the images, staring at the viewer or disappearing away.

Does it work? At a basic level, yes. As in all such series, there are hits and misses, pictures in which the words and images become just confused. Some draw you in to examine the detail thus losing the message. Others hit too hard to do anything but shout at you. But many do succeed in carrying the trick off. In works such as Schoolboy, the starkness of the white background and the two Georges staring out surprised from circles hits home hard. In Gang Straight their faces stare directly out behind a repetition of the short challenging key word. London Crime has a variety of words that have a rhythm all of their own. One of the most affecting works, Dying, is made all the more moving by the way that the figure of artists away drift away, while Death Leap has the two stare down from fractured buildings. Seeing them en masse doesn't altogether help as the black tends to overpower. Seen individually, the presence of Gilbert and George adds layers of meaning as well as comment.

But, given the scale of the artists' ambitions, it is hard not to feel a sense of failed intention, of a way of working that is beginning to run out of steam. A newspaper is there to shock you into wanting to read more. In Gilbert and George's work, it's there to make you consider the life around. The more subtle the message, however, the more it fails this format. Gilbert and George have spoken of spirits that haunt place and occasion and seem to think of themselves as hovering in these pictures as spirits. They have even drawn the comparison with Air Chief Dowding, the head of RAF Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain, who had a habit of addressing dead airmen as a gateway to communing with the dead.

If that is the case, then it doesn't work. If you need to explain it, it hasn't worked, not in terms of Gilbert and George's popular art. The ethereal in this brash and brutal wordage seems just fuzzy. The attempt to differentiate the works between "Straight" and plain by altering the type face may mean something to the artists. It doesn't mean much or anything to the ordinary viewer.

Perhaps we are in the land of spirits. But to most of us, I suspect, the artists in these pictures appear as two ageing men puzzled and appalled at what is going on in the world today. It's a feeling many of us share but not one that is going to be "changed" by these pictures.

Gilbert and George: London Pictures 2011, White Cube Galleries, Bermondsey, Mason's Yard & Hoxton Square, London (whitecube.com) to 14 April (Hoxton Square) and to 12 May (Bermondsey & Mason's Yard)

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