Pictorial Baggage: Dennis Kardon on Robert Gober
The introductory galleries to the Robert Gober retrospective contain a curious rebus of well-chosen objects laying out major themes of his career. But it’s not until the third gallery that we find the sinks. For those that saw them in the mid 1980s, the sinks will always remain the real introduction to Gober’s work.
According to MoMA, the sinks’ “uselessness spoke to the impossibility of cleansing oneself,” in the midst of the AIDS crisis. A sensible metaphor in hindsight, but in 1984 and ’85, when he made them, the sinks had only a vague relationship to the AIDS crisis that was just beginning. Intimations of fear and confusion and a sudden consciousness of bodily vulnerability were intensifying dynamically, but the sinks addressed these feelings only subliminally.
The sinks, shown in 1985 at Paula Cooper, the major SoHo gallery where Gober formerly worked as a preparator, launched his career. They were constructed of wood, wire lath, plaster, and several coats of semi-gloss enamel paint and had holes where faucets and drains would normally be. Abstract in form, but representational in content, Gober’s sinks were in dialogue with the work of other artists in the same roster, such as Joel Shapiro with his tiny bronze chairs. They invoked the immaculate simplicity of Minimalism, but with a younger generation’s interest in the handmade and a treasonous approach to representation. Evoking Magritte’s pipe, they seemed mysterious, provocative and absurd.
With two holes that could be read as eyes, and a belly like shape with a drain hole that implied excretion, it was not hard to see these variously shaped objects as body substitutes. Abject rather than high-tech (the popular style then), they had a hint of nostalgia, the kind of sinks found in the old industrial loft buildings artists had been renovating as studios over the past decade.
But in his first significant gallery show, Gober’s sinks were, like much work of that period, presented as a series, as variations on a theme. Viewers were unprepared for the widely disparate nature of the work to come.
It is problematic then, that we don’t encounter Slides of a Changing Painting (1982–83) until several rooms further, because when it was first shown for five days at Paula Cooper in 1984, a year before the sinks, few saw it. It is clearly a Rosetta Stone for understanding Gober, an index of ideas that generated much of his future work. In this projection of slides, a small painting on Masonite was continually reworked, scraped down, and repainted. Torsos morphed from male to female, then into rooms, and then into landscapes and back to torsos. Gober winnowed hundreds of the slides he took of this process to 89 whose images continually dissolve into each other. This piece illuminates the importance of painting ideas to the structure of Gober’s work, so much so that it becomes helpful to think of his pieces less as sculptures than as three-dimensional images.
In fact the very first thing in this retrospective is Hope Hill Road, a painting of Gober’s childhood home done in the style of Fairfield Porter that he painted at 21. Drawn and painted images make subtle but important appearances throughout the exhibition, from paintings of abject, violent, and quotidian episodes that line the walls of a handmade church model, to the famous pairing of the sleeping white man/hanging black man that is repeated as wallpaper; or a small, strange surreal/abstract painting that hangs near a handmade sculpture of a bed; and the painted mural of a forest in an installation. His painting has a direct, but unrefined, almost naïve style, which he uses to hint at things private or shameful. In direct contrast to the painstakingly controlled construction of the objects, they are like a repressed physical desire that keeps bubbling to the surface.
So much has been written about the coded gay subtext of Gober’s work, but his sexuality seems to me neither hidden nor celebrated, but merely factual. His objects are often sensuous, but with curiously little eroticism, either gay or straight. His best work is quite literal, like the closet without a door, and he leaves it to viewers to make their own connections.
In fact a major theme is the ubiquitous quotidian object — plywood sheet, closet, dog bed, used paint can, Table Talk apple pie box — all remade with total deadpan verisimilitude and in ever more complex materials. For instance, in carefully recreating a Table Top apple pie container (Untitled, 2008) in copper and glass, he conflates the cliché “American as apple pie” with a degraded container of mass-produced, tasteless fast food and turns the whole thing into a meditation on a ruined idea of wholesomeness.
Nor are these objects — so reminiscent of Duchamp’s readymades — simple art-historical invocations, but function as an implicit critique of Duchampian ideology. Gober, by remaking everyday objects by hand, infers that merely pointing to an object not intended as art, and calling it art, may no longer be sufficient for that object to become art.
Gober’s relation to Duchamp is elaborated upon further with Untitled (1997), a secret view through an open suitcase on the floor, a reference to Étant Donnés, Duchamp’s last work. Looking into the suitcase we see that the inside bottom contains an iron grate, which reveals, under the floor, a pool of water in a forest glade. Kneeling to peer further we can just glimpse a man’s hands holding a diapered baby whose bare legs dangle between his own naked ones. There have been suggestions of baptism or even pedophilia, or maybe just a childhood memory but it certainly is a heavy piece of baggage for anyone to carry around. This is Gober at his most complex, imploding ideas and feelings into a mysterious singularity.
Gober is most powerful when concentrating on how, within the boring facts of daily life, there lurk metaphors for larger experiences of grief, violence, obliviousness, narrow mindedness, aging, and death. When Gober transforms a banal object by emphasizing its subtle metaphorical possibilities, it feels intense. He is more problematic in big statements — either piousness (such as in his September 11th elegy) or Surrealism inevitably takes over. Images he might have pulled off as paintings — a flour sack as a hairy body with breasts, a piece of cheese with hair, a rifle melting on a crate of apples — in sculptures seem heavy handed, and Gober’s meticulous craftsmanship points more to the hokey Surrealism of Dali than the heady deconstruction of Magritte.