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March 26, 2000

Robert Gober: An Impresario of Menace in Simple Things


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    By HOLLAND COTTER

    W WASHINGTON A few weeks ago, I visited the survey of work by the American artist Robert Gober at the Hirshhorn Museum here and was jotting some notes when a youngish man with a ponytail and a goatee steamed over. No hellos. He was agitated.

    "You look like you know what this stuff is about," he snapped. "I don't get it." Sensing some kind of crisis, I suggested that an essay in the show's brochure might be of help. "I have that," he said and slapped his back pocket. "And I'll read it." That sounded like a threat, not a promise.

    I started to watch people. An older man paused in front of a small, graffitilike drawing of male and female genitals and gave a clipped, doubtful laugh. Two teenagers stared at a child's shoe cast in blood-red wax. A woman in sneakers moved slowly past a rattan dog's bed skewered by an industrial pipe. She was smiling a fixed public smile.



    Photograph by Lee Stalsworth/Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington
    An installation by Robert Gober at the Hirshhorn Museum combines recent untitled sculptures like a dog's bed pierced by a culvert pipe, far right.

    Mr. Gober, 45, is among the best known of the American artists who established careers during the late 1980's and 1990's, a time when AIDS, identity politics and culture wars produced a surreal, gothic, dystopian sensibility in art. His work is much in evidence this spring, both in the traveling survey "Robert Gober: Sculptures and Drawings" at the Hirshhorn and in the 2000 Biennial that opened at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York last week. In the Hirshhorn show in particular it is art that feels resonant with a recent past but at least potentially in tune with a new decade.

    Many of his images are handmade versions of overlookable, seemingly innocuous things: household furniture, old-fashioned utility sinks, swatches of wallpaper. But in each case something is off. The original forms have been enlarged or reduced, stretched or compressed, or infused with a psychological or sexual content -- the genital drawing is a wallpaper design -- that alters and undermines their usual function.

    To enhance the sense of strangeness, Mr. Gober has made a practice of exhibiting his work in stripped-down gallery spaces lighted like stage sets. During the 1990's he integrated various individual themes into installations, an art genre that has roots in 1960's Minimalism and that merges objects with interior architecture, projecting a distinct theatricality.

    Installation art was ubiquitous in the 1990's. Sometimes it took the form of improvised, jam-packed jumbles of matter. Mr. Gober's installation pieces -- and his gallery shows, which almost always had the organic feel of being installations -- were spare, immaculate. Objects had a numinous presence. The effect was of a domestic twilight zone, magnetic, haunted, possibly malevolent.

    Most of his images have sources in childhood, and specifically in a postwar, suburban, first-TV-generation American childhood. He was born in 1954 in Wallingford, Conn. His father, who worked in a factory and had a contractor's skills (he built the family home), taught him the virtue of making things by hand. He was raised as an altar-boy Roman Catholic. He knew he was gay when he was very young.

    He studied literature and art at Middlebury College in Vermont and graduated in 1976. One of the earliest pieces in the Hirshhorn show -- a cool, Pop-ish pencil drawing of an Ivory liquid soap bottle -- dates from around that time. Then he came to New York and worked as a carpenter and as a studio assistant to the painter Elizabeth Murray.

    He was a painter himself at the time, and in 1982 began a yearlong project that had a significant effect on what was to come. He executed hundreds of fast paintings on a single wooden panel, photographing each when it was finished and then scraping it away to begin another. He later sorted out some 90 slides and projected them sequentially as a piece titled "Slides of a Changing Painting," which is on view near the beginning of the Hirshhorn show.

    The images in the paintings are of ordinary, clunky things combined in weird ways. A plumbing fixture emerges from a bare male torso; a pair of facing staircases descend and meet in an empty room; an outsize autumn leaf sits in a chair; bare human limbs and streams of water weave together as a kind of plaidlike fabric pattern.

    The results have the spooky, deadpan wit of Magritte's paintings, but they also feel specifically and personally meaningful, in the cryptic way that jotted-down dreams do. It is as if Mr. Gober opened a tap to his unconscious and left it running for a year. The images that flowed out have provided a major source for his work ever since.

    Beginning in the early 1980's, he used some of these motifs as a basis for sculptures: sinks, pipes and drains, playpens, child-size beds. The work was clearly influenced by Minimalist reductivism, and by a post-Minimalist bent toward reticence. He was especially attracted to the tiny cast bronze houses and chairs of Joel Shapiro, who, like Gober, showed at Paula Cooper Gallery. But taking a cue from earlier feminist art, Mr. Gober eroticzed his forms and infused them with an implied narrative, even autobiographical content.

    His first solo show was in 1985, when Neo-Conceptualism, with its emphasis on consumer culture, was shaping up to be the dominant style and the art market was flush. Then came upheaval. The market crashed. Art came under political fire. AIDS was like an alarm that wouldn't shut off. It was a time that gave no one any rest, and new art grew nervy and dynamic, but also constrained by a fetishistic focus on mortality, sexuality, on a mechanistic view of history that left the future bleak and the past tainted.

    Mr. Gober's development was very much linked to that moment and is most easily understood within it. His vision of childhood grew more intensely fatalistic. The human figure, once physically absent from his work, appeared, but fragmented and damaged. The homoerotic content sharpened. At the same time, as much New York art grew overtly polemical, he kept his work conceptually oblique, emotionally damped-down, aimed to get under your skin rather in your face.

    His mode of understatement, a kind of pressure-cooker effect, was often highly effective. The art world's intellectual hero at the time was Michel Foucault, the French philosopher who examined constricting social power relations, most blatantly manifested in prisons and psychiatric hospitals. And no artist better captured a sense of Foucault's romance with oppression than Mr. Gober. At the same time, there was room in his art for humor, however sardonic, and a strain of poetry that would become more evident with time.

    All of these elements are in the Hirshhorn show, organized by Richard Flood, chief curator of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, though it gives a somewhat imprecise impression of Mr. Gober's output.

    Spanning some 25 years, it includes a handful of representative sculptures but concentrates on drawing, a medium never particularly associated with the artist. None of his best-known installations, like those at the DIA Center in New York in 1992 and the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art in 1997, have been reconstituted for the occasion.

    As compensation, the exhibition as a whole has been conceived as a kind of extended installation: a long sequence of frosty-looking, bare-bones rooms that suggest a cross between a prison, a chapel and a home.

    The opening gallery, for example, is small and close like a vestibule but has somewhat unwelcoming contents. A 1976 oil painting hangs on the wall. It depicts a pair of hands, maybe a woman's, washing dishes in a kitchen sink. Below on the gallery floor sits a small red box labeled "Enforcer Rat Bait." It looks like the real thing, but it's modeled from plaster and paint.

    Domesticity -- poisoned, entrapping or disrupted -- is a main theme from here on. The doorway between the first gallery and the next has been fitted with a wooden frame, but the door itself leans against the far wall. For some reason, it has no knob, and may have been forcibly removed. A door in the wall nearby, gunmetal gray and resembling a fire exit, is a fake. A window, the only one in the show, is barred and set way above reach, and anyway looks out onto a patch of painted sky.


    Photograph by Lee Stalsworth/Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington
    A leg molded from wax and protruding from the wall.

    Everything in this melodramatic, paranoid stage set is as neat as a pin. But nothing actually works. Sinks, made from plaster and paint in various shapes and sizes, have no plumbing and just two round holes, like startled, watchful eyes, where the faucets should be. Drains are implanted directly into walls like surveillance devices. A big box of tissues sits on an infant-size molded plastic chair; a metal grate in the floor underneath it is like a runoff for a flood of tears.

    Any child would want to weep in this bleak, unsafe house. A playpen is sadistically distorted. Newspapers carry reports of disasters tucked among wedding announcements. (Mr. Gober appears dressed as a bride on one page; on another, a 6-year-old boy named Robert Gober is reported dead in a backyard pool accident.)

    The only evidence of a parental presence is a man's hairy leg, molded from wax, fitted with individual hairs, dressed in a sock and a shoe, and protruding from a wall at floor level. It's as if the house had landed on him, Wicked Witch-style. (The cast is of Mr. Gober's leg, and the shoe is his.)

    As enigmatic and unsettling as this work is -- it can certainly make people uncomfortable, or at least confused enough to be unsure of what their reaction should be -- it still represents Mr. Gober in a fairly mild-mannered mode. His most provocative individual pieces, which have raised their share of dust over the years, have not been included here.

    Missing, for instance, are examples of the wallpaper and fabric patterns he designed using images of a lynched black man (from a 1920's political cartoon) and a sleeping white man (from a Bloomingdale's advertisement). When he exhibited the designs at the Hirshhorn in 1990, black museum personnel protested.

    Also absent are his most explicitly erotic sculptures, notably the series of cast male legs and buttocks, often nude, emerging from walls. Sexually available and vulnerable, some were adorned with candles or pocked with drains like open sores.

    Nor is there any trace, except in video documentation, of Mr. Gober's 1997 Los Angeles installation, in which the central image was a concrete statue of the Virgin Mary, modeled by the artist and pierced through the abdomen with a metal culvert. It drew fire from church groups that considered it sacrilegious.

    Many of the artist's sculptures, when displayed alone, have an iconic, almost sacramental aura; his installations feel, often in oppressive ways, ritualistic. But the image of the pierced Virgin, surrounded by flowing water (it poured down a staircase behind her and ran under the floor beneath her feet), read like a candid effort on Mr. Gober's part to examine the mechanics of faith. And nowhere has the language of abjection on which he has based his art felt richer or more complex.

    To get some sense of this complexity, one can turn to the drawings, which make up the bulk of the exhibition. Mr. Gober has indicated that drawing is, for him, a notational activity, a way of planning or working out ideas, not an end in itself. The dozens of examples spread throughout the show suggest as much.

    Most of them are done on nothing-special paper, some in ballpoint pen. The images tend to be small, even crabbed, isolated on the page the way Mr. Gober's sculptures are in a gallery space. They are precisely rendered but often erased, then drawn over with graceless, pressured deliberation.

    Polish and virtuosity aren't the point. What's there instead is a thinking process in play, one whose peculiarly slowed-down restlessness and subtlety are most apparent when a single theme -- the sink, for example -- is reconfigured dozens of ways.

    None of these variations are real, drawn-from-life sinks. They have exaggerated postures and distinctive personalities. Some, with tall back splashes and vestigial basins, look monumental; others are squat and babyish. The faucet-hole eyes make them seem alert or alarmed or cute. A few are even intended as cartoons, as in the case of a 1986 exhibition card Mr. Gober designed with a sink top as a tombstone bearing the epitaph "Robert Gober, New Work."

    Things get more interesting, however, the further he departs from the prototype, takes its basic form and unfolds it, bends it, splays it and in general makes it abstract. Sometimes he creates a whole flock of sinks as oddly angled crosses that seem to fly in formation across the page, or as L-shapes that tumble like boomerangs.

    In other cases, a number of sinks are welded together into architectural structures. And on a few pages, the sink drawings are accompanied by doodle-like linear forms, modernist-looking systems of overlapping squares, the kind of thing one might do to relax, without lifting the hand from the page.

    All these morphological riffs loosen up the obtuse, adamant solidity of the sculptures and suggest the wealth of associations that the sink, as a form, can carry: of washing (clothes, houses, babies, bodies living and dead), of baptism, of slaking thirst, of warming, cooling, healing, of dirt rinsed down the drain, and of precious things -- fortunes, lives -- gone down the drain and lost.

    It's important to understand the metaphorical dimensions of Mr. Gober's art. But it's not always easy to do so in the presence of some of his past sculptures, which seem locked in their mood of infantile alienation. As time goes on, and the cultural climate that produced them recedes, their Grand Guignol brew of pessimism and nostalgia can still deliver a shock, but it also feels heavy-handed.

    The sculptures that Mr. Gober contributed to this year's Whitney Biennial, including one of a large sink with childlike legs protruding from the faucet holes, feels that way, too. It is a kind of pastiche of past motifs that it is hard to image him taking any further.

    With its emphasis on a fleeter, more flexible medium, the Hirshhorn exhibition, which moves to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art from May 26 to Sept. 5, might be read as a tacit acknowledgement of that. So might the 1997 Los Angeles installation, and a memorable group show that Mr. Gober organized at Matthew Marks Gallery in Chelsea last summer. There, Mr. Gober indirectly expanded on his own art (which he didn't include) through that of older and younger artists he admires, from an Anni Albers textile with an abstract geometric pattern to a set of 1970's photographs by Nancy Shaver that tracked the innocence-to-experience progression of childhood but did so unemphatically, almost casually.

    Unemphatic is, in fact, the tone of much work being produced by young American artists. The prickly, critical content of the 1980's and 90's has relaxed; the thrill of emergency is gone.

    Yet essential links are in place. Childhood remains an insistent theme, and few artists have more effectively explored it than Mr. Gober. His purgatorial suburbia lives on in many forms, among them photographs by Gregory Crewdson and his many followers, in which psychic narratives play themselves out in spotless kitchens and on manicured lawns.

    Mr. Gober's exploration of sexuality and gender has been thoroughly absorbed by a post-AIDS, post-political, post-identity generation. His attention to the hand-crafted object finds many adherents, as does the systems-intensive, variations-on-a-theme approach represented by his drawings, an approach that in other hands has become an end in itself. The big difference is that younger artists are lightening up on his formal density and his conceptual gravity. Perhaps that is the direction that Mr. Gober, an artist emblematic of one era and poised on the edge of another, will take himself. 



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