BY Ara H. Merjian in Reviews | 16 DEC 14
Featured in
Issue 168

Robert Gober

Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA

BY Ara H. Merjian in Reviews | 16 DEC 14

Untitled, 1991, wood, beeswax, leather, fabric and human hair, 34 × 42 × 117 cm

Titled ‘The Heart is Not a Metaphor’, this large-scale survey of Robert Gober’s work to date included media and materials ranging from drawing to slideshow to sculpture. Gober’s practice has long chafed against even the most iconoclastic of contemporary tendencies. The 1970s found him insouciantly engaged with painting, during a time when that medium suffered some of its greatest neo-avant-garde execrations. At the same time, his conceptually inflected installations bear out what MoMA’s wall texts define as a ‘craft based approach’ – an attention to verisimilitude that would seem to fly in the face of his work’s more rarefied concerns. Habitually described as a sculptor, Gober defies even that pigeonhole, in that his works – whether severed limbs appended to walls or walls themselves papered over in designs by the artist’s hand – swell to create a kind of environment, rather than merely constitute objects per se. Bundles of newspapers (some real and some counterfeited) lining gallery walls, cribs filled with inanimate inhabitants, hybrid objects shrugging off the yoke of identity and familiarity: these pieces beg more questions than their poker-faced materiality obliges with answers.

Untitled, 1980–81, oil on wood panel, 20 × 15 cm

Gober’s work is commonly discussed in relation to Surrealism and his repeated appeals to the simulacral body (usually cast in beeswax) indeed recall the movement’s penchant for automata, dolls and mannequins as ambassadors of the uncanny. So, too, his eerie transformation of household objects – whether hairy candles (Untitled Candle, 1991) or a wedge of cheese (Long Haired Cheese, 1992–93) – conjure up the legacies of the (assisted) readymade, along with the pictorial and ‘paranoiac’ metamorphoses conceived by painters such as Salvador Dalí and René Magritte. The rebus-like Leg with Anchor (2008) and Untitled (2007–08) (featuring a stool sprouting breasts, pitched from the wall with a bird’s nest tucked into its slats) coerce seemingly incongruous objects into a creepy marriage of allusions. Melted Rifle (2006) positions its eponymous, impotent firearm over a plastic crate of (fake) green apples, recalling the fruit as invoked in Magritte’s imagery, as well as the subversion of common implements pioneered by artists such as Man Ray and Méret Oppenheim. Gober’s part-objects and wayward, hirsute limbs conjure up a troubling erotics from within the domain of everyday banality.

What, perhaps, separates his work from Dadaist and Surrealist precedents is its concurrent – and somewhat contradictory – fetishization of craft. Whether the pattern for an armchair slip-cover, the layered tobacco of an outsized cigar or the shiny glaze of simulated sinks (an oft-repeated motif), Gober goes to great lengths to re-create authenticity by artificial means. His Seagram’s gin bottles, for example, recall Jasper Johns’s painted Ballantine ale cans; but while the latter remain anchored to a plainly bronzed plinth, Gober seems determined to have his objects be mistaken for the real thing. In several rooms, the bottles sit on the floor against the wall, as if left behind by those installing the show. But if they emulate the unrehearsed informality of the readymade, these bottles, like Gober’s untitled tin of enamel paint (2005–06, wrought from cast lead crystal and aluminium leaf), also call attention to their artifice – in other words, precisely the opposite of extant objecthood. Does his 1987 handmade replica of a plywood sheet aspire to the status of the ordinary or the exceptional? To what end of the spectrum – between craft and Conceptualism – should our appraisal of Gober’s work tend? Or is that dichotomy itself that which the artist aims to confuse? That many remain uncertain is perhaps one of Gober’s prime achievements thus far.

Untitled, 2005–06, aluminium leaf, oil and enamel paint on cast lead crystal, 12 × 11 cm

The exhibition did not simply display a succession of objects, but also re-created several of Gober’s solo shows, whether at Paris’s Jeu de Paume or at the Dia Center, New York – choices that go some way to revealing the importance of site-specificity to his work. The Jeu de Paume show, from 1991, featured a wallpapered forest punctuated by characteristic fake limbs, while his 1992–93 Dia Center show included high, prison-like walls lined with symmetrically spaced sinks (this time functional), along with stacks of newspaper and boxes of rat bait set against colour-by-numbers wallpaper of trees. Interspersed with tabloids, several copies of The New York Times reveal themselves to be printed with fake headlines. (‘Bush [Senior] Wins Second Term Promising Tax Cuts’ reads one faux 1993 edition. The installation suggests an oneiric space made real, playing upon Gober’s habitual oppositions of purity (sinks) and contamination (poison, another Bush term), confinement (prison windows) and release (forest). Similar juxtapositions obtain in Gober’s untitled 1989–96 installation, featuring a wedding gown and bags of cat litter, set off against wallpapered imagery of a sleeping white man and a lynched black man. As in the Dia installation, the ideal and idyllic commonplaces of American life – whether a pristine forest or sexual virtue – are revealed to be haunted by less welcome spectres.

Developed in the late 1980s and early ’90s, these works must also be considered in terms of the AIDS crisis, by which the artist, as a gay man, felt himself irrevocably affected. In that vein, an entire room dedicated to Gober’s sinks attests to the motif’s recurring prominence and the importance of the healing/cleansing associations of water to his oeuvre. Some of the sinks are straightforward re-creations (in which even the ceramic glaze is approximated by paint), while others have become the object of formal experimentation. Perhaps the most elegiac versions appeared beyond the museum’s walls altogether: two sinks outside a second-floor window in one gallery, positioned upright in mounds of fake grass, and thus evoking gravestones in the middle of New York’s cityscape.

Untitled (detail), 1992, installation view at MoMA

The same trope of water reappears in Gober’s 2003–05 chapel-like installation dedicated to 9/11, for which he arranged a series of objects on the floor, flanked by a suite of pastel and graphite drawings atop editions of The New York Times covering the fateful events. Behind the installation’s centrepiece – a crucified Christ spouting water from his chest – two symmetrical rooms with their doors ajar reveal an anonymous man and woman in their respective baths. Aside from recalling Marcel Duchamp’s Etant Donnés diorama (1946–66), the piece evinces a decidedly melancholic – and elliptical – meditation on the tragedy and its aftermath.

Gober remains something of a darling of the critical establishment, most notably for his cerebral reflections on embodiment and its discontents. For all its figurative projections into space, his vision remains a decidedly private one, verging at times on the expressly hermetic. The artist’s engagement with trauma often appears a tad too tidy; his gestures of mourning – whether the wallpapered lynched figure or the stray detached limbs that litter the galleries – risk an almost cartoony glibness. Though I wonder if the objects’ cold and clammy appearance consitutes precisely what psychoanalysts would term a reaction formation: their controlled exteriors belying an underlying psychic anxiety in same way that the water absent from his sinks speaks to issues around healing and purification. Gober deploys silence, subtraction and absence to striking effect. I only wish that his doors and cribs, sinks and stools – as much as his headless torsos – could resist the slight navel-gazing to which they tend, even, or especially, at their most publicly oriented.

Ara H. Merjian is Professor of Italian Studies at New York University, USA, where he is an affiliate of the Institute of Fine Arts and Department of Art History.