Gilbert & George represent something exceptional - two people but indubitably only one artist. It's not just that they live and work together in London's East End, and even dress alike. It's that their creative output speaks of a unitary intelligence and taste.

It has been this way for more than 40 years, since Gilbert Proesch, 64, and George Passmore, 66, met as sculpture students at St. Martin's School of Art in London. Their aesthetic synergy was immediate and permanent, for they have never worked separately. Professionally, they have always been Gilbert & George.

They are far better known in Britain, where, like Andy Warhol, they are public figures, than in the United States. Part of their fame - or notoriety - derives from their use of scatological and sexual themes, but that's not the whole story. In their early works, Gilbert & George played off popular culture, particularly the English music hall. They created a sensation when they performed as "living sculptures" miming the words to popular songs.

Americans are getting a taste of Gilbert & George through a traveling retrospective exhibition, organized by Tate Modern, that will open at the Milwaukee Art Museum June 14 and at the Brooklyn Museum Oct. 3. In this context, a small Gilbert & George show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the fifth installment in the new Notations series, functions as a preview.

The 13 photo works from the 1970s and '80s deliver the essential G&G experience, if not the full range of their attitudes toward art and how the public perceives it. From the beginning, the artists wanted to make work to which the general public would respond, and which it could understand. So they chose to work in photography; every piece at the Art Museum involves photographs in various collage-style combinations.

Gilbert & George appear as themselves in many works; in some, they are the primary subjects. Yet they are also Everymen. One of the problems an observer has with their work is deciding whether they're garden-variety exhibitionists or role-players who represent a variety of human experiences.

The key to their art is the way they express emotions and impulses, the way they give voice to thoughts, actions and language that are often suppressed in polite company. They do so in a deadpan manner that can be taken as either bluntly honest or pointedly satiric. The conflicting currents in their art make it intriguing and hard to analyze. Critics are divided; some consider G&G to be geniuses, others dismiss them as poseurs.

I was in the poseur camp for a while, but lately I'm beginning to appreciate the complexity and subtlety of their method, especially in the color pieces from the 1980s. The exhibition, organized by Art Museum curators Carlos Basualdo and Adelina Vlas, is about equally divided between animated color compositions and the more somber, less intricate black-and-white works of the 1970s. The show also includes three mosaic-like collages made from commercial postcards, which the artists perversely insist on describing as sculptures.

Gilbert & George make photomurals, not as whole, homogeneous sheets but as individually framed pictures that are assembled as gridded blocks, squares or rectangles. This format, and the vivid colors of the later works, allude to stained glass.

This sacral resonance, which often contrasts noticeably with profane subject matter, creates some of the dissonance that gives their work its peculiar edginess. For instance, the murals

Seven Heroes

and

Fired

include mug-shot-like portraits of young men, which some observers read as a homoerotic subtext.

Pieces such as

Dead Boards No. 18

and

Dead Boards No. 5

from 1976 most clearly express the negative emotions that often counterpoint the more effusive elements in their work, especially the vivid hand-dyed colors. These murals depict the artists standing in what appear to be empty rooms; the titles refer to close-up panels of cracked floorboards.

The melancholy persists in another, similar work from the mid-1970s,

Red Morning Drowned,

in which half the 25 panels are tinted an angry red. The black-and-white panels through the center form a cross, another common motif. The prevailing mood is isolation, anxiety and foreboding.

The introduction of bold, saturated colors such as green, blue, yellow and bronze raises the emotional temperature of later works such as

Berries, They

(a frontal portrait of the artists seated) and especially of

Fired,

the largest and most complex work in the show, both thematically and compositionally.

Fired

in particular generates an agitated, typically Gilbert & George mood of existential precariousness.

Even

Berries,

with its cheery Christmas palette of bright red and green, is ambiguous. The lush fruits and leaves project a life-affirming force, while the kneeling penitent figure of Gilbert at lower left, juxtaposed against a larger, more authoritarian George at the right, implies sin and hope for salvation.

In color works such as

Berries,

Gilbert & George offer visual synopses of daily life - beauty, vitality and joy interspersed with random misfortune, pain, despair and ugliness. There's a subtle, understated preachiness in their work. One senses that beneath the occasional shock-and-awe tactics they have used (not in this exhibition, though) two conservative moralists are lurking.

It's questionable, though, whether their method of transforming recognizable objects into emblems of these states really can fulfill their guiding slogan of "Art for All." They might be putting us on about that.

Gilbert & George can be dismissed as clever lads who developed an ingenious and marketable shtick - making their lives a continuous performance that can in itself be considered art. I'm willing to concede the possibility of their being a glittering facade, yet the effort and energy required to produce the works on show argue the contrary.

The photo murals are all unique, not editioned as one might surmise, because they are so labor-intensive. And, as this show demonstrates, they are intellectually richer than their brassy, comic-book appearance might indicate.

Put aside the biographical performance aspect of Gilbert & George - the identical suits, the predictable daily regimen, the two-in-one persona - and one recognizes an imaginative art form perfectly attuned to the time in which it emerged.

Art: Double Vision

The Gilbert & George exhibition continues in Gallery 176 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 26th Street and the Parkway, through Nov. 2. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays and to 8:45 p.m. Fridays. Admission is $14 general, $12 for visitors 62 and older, and $10 for students with ID and visitors 13 to 18. Pay what you wish Sundays. Information: 215-763-8100, 215-684-7500 or

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Contact contributing art critic Edward J. Sozanski at 215-854-5595 or esozanski@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http:// go.philly.com/edwardsozanski.