Well, that's Gilbert and George for you

Gilbert and George are deep in it once more, provoking outrage with their new (and largely unpublishable) body of work. By Jonathan Glancey; INTERVIEW
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So that you can meet Gilbert and George, two of Britain's best- known and best-paid artists, on the same level, let's get the rude bit over. Ready? Brace yourselves, and here we go: Bent Shit Cunt. How about that for a picture title? Or how about plain old Fucked Up? These are from Gilbert and George's "Dirty Words" show of 1977.

Gilbert and George have their reasons, imperfectly valid, for trying to shock their viewers' sensibilities with these outbursts of brutal Anglo- Saxon on vibrantly coloured celluloid. One, of course, is to provoke reaction. The artists have their own Ten Commandments and the First says: "Thou shalt fight conformism", something they have done for more than a quarter of a century and continue to do while living in an exquisitely restored early 18th-century Huguenot weaver's house in Spitalfields in the East End of London, and dressed in comic-book Burton suits c.1960 ("Suits of the 20th century," says George, the tall one with specs).

They are revered abroad, but remain the bane of many British critics. "We don't often go on television," says Gilbert (the short, Italian one - Ernie Wise to George's Eric Morecambe), "but we enjoyed the time we were interviewed by Waldemar Januszcak. He asked us what we thought of Picasso. What can you say about Picasso? We called him a 'foreign dago wanker'. Januszcak took us seriously and used the occasion as an excuse to pen a filthy review of our latest show."

"Criticism does hurt us, though," says Gilbert, spaniel-eyed. Criticism may well come their way by the bucketful next month with the opening of their latest show at the South London Gallery, Brixton, called "The Naked Shit Pictures". Most of the pictures on show will feature one or more of the artists' very own turds in gleaming colour.

"The Naked Shit Pictures" is an immensely powerful body of work (or should that be "out of body"?), and designed to shock. All Gilbert and George's work does. What makes their huge pictures so special is the way in which the grubby, disturbing, upsetting, defecatory subjects they represent are portrayed in the most fastidiously conceived and beautifully crafted manner (photographic prints, using images taken exclusively by the artists and making much use of lustrous hand colouring).

Ignore, for a moment, the language, the naked East End boys and Gilbert and George's own gaping orifices (hard to ignore, but try anyway) and look at their work as you might a stained glass window by Morris or Burne- Jones. In fact, their coloured images are very much like Victorian stained- glass panels brought dazzlingly up to date. And, as Burne-Jones made women anaemic and angels antiseptic, so Gilbert and George have the ability to make shit look good.

In other words, their life and work is an exquisite contradiction. Or conundrum. They take on hard and literally filthy subjects, yet dress in immaculate suits. And they study the brutalised East End from one of the most beautiful houses in London.

Knock on the door at 12 Fournier Street ("we aren't ex-directory or anything like that," says Gilbert. "Just a couple of lower-class wankers," giggles George). Gilbert and George unbolt the muddy-brown Georgian door and usher guests into a panelled and polished interior.

There is not a trace of dust. Instead, there is fabulous high Victorian furniture by Pugin, Eastlake, Burges and Christopher Dresser. Their collection of Dresser pots is possibly the world's finest. The walls are lined with leather-bound books. Here is Pugin's Floreated Ornament, and there, Owen Jones's Grammar of Ornament. Each book Gilbert or George opens glows with the colours you see in their post-1975 pictures (they went colour that year).

"We've other libraries here, too," says George. He shows me a room rippling with magazines celebrating the male body beautiful. Lots of nudes. Oiled and muscular. How different, how very different from the naked and oh so vulnerable looking torsos of Gilbert and George themselves which appear in virtually every one of their works. "We also collect illustrated childrens books," says George. "And books on theosophy. We are very keen on Annie Besant." Doubtless they are kind to animals, too.

It is important to stress that Gilbert and George do not finish one another's sentences, as interviews with them say they do. They talk as extraordinarily polite individuals with a captivating mix of wit, scholarly knowledge and schoolboy enthusiasm.

Of course, they can be cruel. "If we don't like someone," says Gilbert, "we do our double act." "We can clear a dinner table in 10 minutes," says George with a malicious look behind his nerdy specs. "Less," says Gilbert. "More coffee?"

The double act (a kind of Pete and Dud, or Derek and Clive when they are talking dirty, hitting the bottle - both are fond of a drink or three; George chain smokes Piccadilly ciggies) is something they are famous for. Soon after they met at St Martin's School of Art in London in 1967, they devised a form of art where they, the artist duo, were the exhibition.

Their Singing Sculpture made them famous. It was intended to be a very English act (George, 53, is from Plymouth, while Gilbert, 52, is from the Dolomites and still speaks with an Italian flavour). It consisted of the artists standing on a fold-up table and, dressed in their cheap, Spitalfields suits, faces painted in metallic rainbow colours, rubber glove and green stick in hand, miming along to Flanegan and Allen's Underneath the Arches - for eight hours at a time.

"The Ritz I never sigh for

The Carlton they can keep

There's only one place I know

And that is where I sleep

Underneath the arches

I dream my dreams away"

"We don't go to the Ritz," says George. "In fact, we don't go anywhere very much. We've hardly ever been on holiday. We like it here at home."

Home is where you will find Gilbert and George most days. George has lived in the same house in Fournier Street since St Martin's; he rented and bought later. They work long hours in the immaculately organised and expanding studio behind their brown and cream house. It is true they do not eat or drink here (save for coffee made on a marble-topped Burges side-table) and the house is much more a museum than a conventional home. This has given rise to the rumour that George is secretly married and goes home each night to his wife and children. But no, their day is as highly structured as was that of Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, Gothic Revival fanatic and a Gilbert and George hero. No time for wife and kids.

The artists rise early, wash, dress, work and then eat as they have done for the past 27 years at the Market Cafe along the street. They paid for redecoration when the cafe was threatened with closure. In fact, they pay for a great deal - pounds 600,000 alone recently to Aids charities, more money to promote young artists they admire, and they meet the cost of putting on their own shows and printing their own catalogues.

"We have to," says George. "Officialdom doesn't like us. Nor do all those grand ladies with pearls who sit on modern art committees. They think we're fascists and racist as well as queer. They can think what they like. We took our own show to Moscow and Peking. Moscow cost us pounds 135,000, but it was worth it. The Russians loved it."

When "The Naked Shit Pictures" were shown in Cologne last year, the crowds were so great that the Jablonka Gallery decided to open on Christmas Day. At home, the last major exhibition of their work was at the Hayward Gallery in 1987.

"Most artists suck up to the Art World," says Gilbert. "We don't. We don't go to many openings. We don't do commissions. We don't want to be polite entertainers, doing half-hearted abstracts."

But they do have Anthony d'Offay on their side, the clever art dealer who, it has been said, has sold a Gilbert and George for as much as $300,000.

"Anthony means that we don't have to meet collectors," says Gilbert. "Although we're very polite if we have to meet them," adds George diplomatically.

No, they are not a part of the grand Art World. They are simply two of our most popular ("Not in Britain," reminds Gilbert) and highest earning artists ("Sixty thousand, tops," says Gilbert, adding "the bottom has been falling out of the art market."), although not out of Bum Holes, one of the most prominent pictures in the new show. Is it meant to be funny, a very English bum-in-the-face, two cheeks up to a censorious British art establishment?

"Oh no, it's not funny," says George, "although you can think what you like about our pictures. Imagine showing yourself like this, absolutely naked and utterly vulnerable to the world. Not funny. None of our works are. We are terrified of the world. We're in the pictures, a constant measure, a constant presence, looking at the world staring at us in the face outside the house." A world where walls are sprayed with obscenities and pavements are caked in filth.

"We're not defending or encouraging racists or fascists when we show them in our pictures. We represent unpalatable truths or reality in what some people think of as unpalatable ways. We don't condone."

But because Gilbert and George refuse to pontificate or, despite the pictures, lay themselves bare, preferring to giggle instead now like Pete and Dud, now like Beavis and Butthead, and because they freeze people out, eat in egg and chip caffs (and the Korean restaurant at Highbury Corner), wear funny suits and maintain a mask of inscrutability when it serves them (and it serves them well), they are mistrusted, and, dare one say it, misunderstood.

Faced with the stark, staring reality of the latest pictures, it is hard to see Gilbert and George as a pair of quaint old London art world queens peeping from behind net curtains (yes, they've got them). They are powerful and disturbing artists, full of energy and contradiction. Most of all, they are true to their own commandments and particularly the Tenth: "Thou shalt not know exactly what thou dost, but thou shalt do it."

The Naked Shit Pictures, South London Gallery, 65 Peckham Road, London SE5 8UH. Tues-Fri 11-6; Sat-Sun 2-6. Tel: 0171-703 6120