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LONDON (Reuters) - Eccentric British double act Gilbert & George have produced their biggest group of works to date with the 153-piece "Jack Freak Pictures," which tackles themes including nationhood, religion, sex and being English.
The dominant image throughout is the Union Jack, the flag of the United Kingdom, which forms the backdrop to distorted photographic images of the artists' faces and figures.
Around 40 of the pictures, overlaid with symmetric black grids, are on display at two White Cube galleries in London. Those hanging at the Mason's Yard venue are valued at 50,000-170,000 pounds ($80,000-$275,000) each.
The besuited artists, in their 60s and considered "godfathers" of the contemporary art scene, said the inspiration for the works was "the freak," which appeared in their minds as people with three noses, or four eyes falling from trees.
People's appearance, and what they think and do, are often very different things, the artists said.
"The freak is inside yourself when you close your eyes," said Italian-born Gilbert Proesch, the younger and smaller of the apparently inseparable duo.
"If you look at a person from the outside they look quite normal, but inside they could be quite different," he told Reuters at the White Cube gallery in Mason's Yard.
The taller, bespectacled George Passmore added: "I'm quite amazed when somebody commits 17 murders and they interview the neighbors and they say 'very nice, very charming to me, we've said good morning a thousand times.'
"Of course, you must remember that there are people with very unusual appearances who are kept in institutions never to be seen, all over the world, living their quiet, sad lives."
The "freak" in the Gilbert & George series is generally portrayed through distorted photographic images of the artists and their features set against symmetrical backgrounds.
Some are without mouths and noses, others have only one eye or many, and extra limbs appear against kaleidoscopic patterns of bricks, trees, medals and Union Jacks.
The artists were interested in the Union Jack flag and how it came to represent everything from religious and social tolerance to fervent national pride and nationalism.
The tone of the works ranges from playful to sinister to provocative, as in "Sex & Religion," which refers to a landmark gay and race discrimination case brought by a business manager against his bank employer in 2005.
In "Church of England" the figure of a crucified Jesus appears dressed in a Union Jack pattern is flanked by Gilbert and George, who oppose organized religion.
Gilbert & George won the Turner Prize in 1986 and exhibited at the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2005.
They also had a major retrospective at Tate Modern in London in 2007, which, rather than consigning them to art history, inspired them to create new works.
"Most artists, when they have a retrospective, suffer a trauma where they can hardly do another picture, they feel stuck, their life is at an end," George said. "I think we had a trauma, but a positive one."
Editing by Paul Casciato