Never mind the shock of the new

    Never mind the shock of the new — two East End shows by veteran artists are revelations, says Waldemar Januszczak

    And over the years, Gilbert and George have certainly needled. Back in the Thatcher era, they annoyed every sentient peacenik in the land with their noisy Falklands jingoism and a crass infatuation with skinheads. After that, they annoyed anyone with any taste or grace by focusing crudely on bodily functions in their awful Naked Shit Pictures. In Venice last year, where they were Britain’s official representatives at the Biennale, they had the entire British presence twitching with unease by deliberately tackling the topic of Islam. And now they are taking a pop at Jesus.

    Their new display, Sonofagod Pictures: Was Jesus Heterosexual?, will successfully annoy many Christians who hear about it, and has already infuriated the easily infuriated Ann Widdecombe, who has accused them of blasphemy. It will annoy anyone of any religion who believes the names of gods are sacred. It will annoy those who do not approve of gays. And it will particularly annoy gay-hating Christians. By my reckoning, most people in the country can find something here that irks them. But not me. The new Gilbert and George show doesn’t annoy me at all. Actually, I think it is the most compelling and thoughtful show of theirs I have seen.

    The display takes its title from the largest work, a huge image of two huge crucifixes surrounded by a mountain of smaller crosses, of the kind teenage Japanese girls these days attach to their mobile phones. So, it is a kind of crucifix dump. At the top of the picture are written the words Jesus Says Forgive Yourself; and, at the bottom, God Loves F***ing! Enjoy. These provocative slogans were apparently encountered in the East End, in real bits of graffiti. Gilbert and George themselves, sporting halos, with frilly bows tied around them to indicate which side they support in the sex wars, stand at the feet of the two main crosses. The skeletal Jesuses hanging above them also have bows in their hair, implying some immediate effeminacy.

    So, what do we have here? A deliberate attempt to provoke Catholics? Certainly. The perfect card to send George Bush at Easter? Yeah, yeah. But something more than that, too; something better. The diminutive drunk has, in this instance, picked a fight with that aspect of modern Christianity that promotes heterosexuality as the norm and condemns homosexuality as a perversion. I’m not especially interested in gay religious politics, but even I can see how absurd is the paradox of a loving Christian god who created man in his own image, but cannot handle homosexuality.

    It is in the detailing, however, that this deliberately provocative image soars out of the realms of strident propaganda and enters the realm of excellent art. The two central Jesuses, the skeletal ones, are black and white, and take their sinister look from that particularly grim medieval forgery, the Turin Shroud. Thus, Christianity stands accused of being a death cult. And its heavy-metal image bank and dungeons-and-dragons iconography, its objectionable worship of pain and the joyless weirdness of its sights, are being mocked by the full-colour, life-loving Gilbert and George.

    That said, Was Jesus Heterosexual? is probably the least interesting work in the show. Having dealt with the problematics of Christian homosexuality in an agenda-setting central image, Gilbert and George never mention it again. What this show is really about, and what most of the other things in it confront, is the reawakening of religious primitivism in the modern world. Not just Christianity, but all religions are being accused here of peddling hocus-pocus.

    Every image in the parade is packed with cheap religious insignia: crucifixes, crescent moons, Judaic candelabra, sacred hearts, kabbalah signs and Koranic inscriptions, a huge job lot from Accessorize of multidenominational religious bling. And not only bling from the main religions. Just as prominent are the lucky horseshoes and the jewelled pixies, the Aztec amulets and the masonic badges. The modern world has replaced true religious feeling, which springs from within, with the frantic acquisition of trinkets, charms, pendants, gewgaws, pixies and junk. It’s a fair point.

    The work titled Rank shows G&G surrounded by some particularly showy jewelled crucifixes, and must surely constitute an attack on the ornate ranking system that turns archbishops and their kind into portable branches of Asprey. Pixie Hill deposits us at the foot of a ghastly cast-iron Golgotha made entirely of pixie pendants: never has the repulsiveness of the mass-produced lucky charm been more clearly expressed. Mufti, a title with some nasty punning ambitions, typical of Gilbert and George, confronts the contemporary feminine urge to attach religious bling to your hot pants. I’m with G&G on this. The casual misuse of religious trinkets as jewellery involves a descent into gracelessness.

    It was obvious long ago that Gilbert and George’s huge photo works are trying to match the presence and scale of Victorian stained-glass windows, not just in their gothic colour schemes, but in their mysterious heraldic contortions. But that’s just one of their layers. Heaped onto this heraldic Victorianism are all sorts of other East End tributes: to the cheap trinket shops of Spitalfields; to the Nepalese market stall and the Bangladeshi cloth emporium; to the traditional guild system and the Lord Mayor’s Show; to the East End synagogue and the Islamic bookshop. None of these ingredients is specifically described, but all of them are successfully evoked in what adds up to a love poem upon the cultural diversity of London’s East End.

    My favourite piece isn’t in the least bit ecumenical. Neither is it downstairs in the main exhibition. It is upstairs, among the smaller works, and it is called Mass. At its centre stand a pair of elongated Gilbert and Georges, who have adopted the stern and upright pose that medieval statuary prefers when it finds itself in an important Cistercian porch. All around them, it is raining crucifixes: big, small, plain, ornate, an uncountable number of crosses falling from the sky and drenching the picture in an aura of jewelled and showy sanctity. I don’t believe I have seen a more successful evocation of the incense-soaked atmosphere of the Catholic Mass.

    Gilbert and George will always be naughty schoolboys at heart. And I can’t see them ever growing properly out of prurience. But the older they are, the wiser they get. And in this plangent set of observations on the coarsening of religious instincts in the modern world, these two bad altar boys have hit a crucial nail right on the head.

    A few hundred yards away, in Hoxton, at Flowers East, another veteran of the British art scene has come back for an encore. How many of these encores there have been over the years, I shudder to think. Patrick Hughes must be one of Britain’s most prolific artists, ever. He used to be a pop artist, and had spent the bulk of his career specialising in rainbows, when, about 20 years ago, he changed tack and began exploring the curious thrill of perspective.

    You must know his work. A library near you will have on its walls one of Hughes’s eye-bending literary interiors, featuring rows and rows of packed bookshelves that seem to move and bend before your eyes as you walk past them. The trick is achieved with some basic 3-D construction. It’s a simple gimmick, but a good one.

    What amazes me, though, and the reason I urge you to see Hughes’s latest display of wobbly perspectives, is that the damn things just get better and better. Having long ago perfected the format, Hughes is now experimenting wildly with the content. A mad tribute to Rothko gives us a set of bendy museum corridors filled only with Rothko paintings. A giant Mondrian tunnel plays havoc with your sense of balance. My favourite eye-strainer takes you to Venice and confronts you with a psychedelic Canaletto of rubber palazzos and elastic canals.

    This isn’t gimmickry. This is true surrealism.