Philadelphia

Robert Gober

Tyler School of Art

There were only five pieces in this show of Robert Gober’s sculpture, an austere distillation of his work that emphasized its elegiac quality. Gober made these generic, unassuming objects out of such materials as plaster, wood, wire lath, and enamel. They were carefully installed in the gallery’s bilevel space: Slip Covered Armchair, 1986–87, occupied a corner adjacent to Two Basinless Sinks, 1986, in the smaller, upper entry room, while Untitled, 1984 (a single sink), Plywood, 1987, and Untitled, 1986 (a single bed) were juxtaposed in the larger, lower room. The way they were arranged, separated by expanses of brightly or dimly lit bare walls, preserved each piece’s solitary status, providing it with an amplitude of space for maximum formal and connotative reverberation. Things were also deliberately placed, or misplaced, so as to forestall a reading of the installation as a set of related objects within an integrated environment—that is, as an evocation of a room. Instead, the works were presented as objects for contemplation, almost as in an archeological museum of the present, wherein certain archetypal remnants and fragments of our time had been collected, reconstructed, and preserved. The sculptures’ obvious lack of functionality permitted their intrinsically associative qualities and ritualistic functions to dominate—the sink as spiritual lavabo, the bed as symbol of conception, birth, and death. The installation as a whole thus suggested a kind of memento mori, enhanced by the objects’ intensely concentrated stillness, together with such details as the resemblance of the twin sinks to tombstones; the slight dent, almost a body-print, in the bedclothes; and the lack of cushions for the armchair. This pervasive sense of loss and absence lent these works, despite their physicality, something of the spectral quality of simulacra or ghosts.

Of course, things are not quite what they appear to be in Gober’s work. In their Minimalist aspect and seeming incorporation of everyday artifacts, his sculptures combine a timely look with a surprisingly old-fashioned insistence on the value of personal creation and construction. These sinks, bed, chair, and nominal sheet of plywood are not preexisting readymades thrust into an art context but the products of the artist’s meticulous and attentive facture—a commitment to making that extends even to the sewing and painting of the armchair’s floral cover. Paolo Colombo, this show’s curator, aptly characterizes Gober’s works as “portraits of real objects.” Yet as replicas stripped to something just beyond the essential they possess a mute gravity that exceeds simple replication. Their reductiveness invites rather than resists amplification, investing them with an iconicity that opens up a wide range of metaphor. Gober’s almost subliminal adjustment of scale—the bed and the armchair, for example, seem subtly miniaturized—further locates these objects at the juncture of the symbolic and the surreal. Here, homely artifacts serve as manifestations of interior histories. In this sense, the trompe l’oeil Plywood, made of laminated fir, is something of a joker in the pack—a one-liner whose ironic commentary on the nature of appearance versus reality (and object versus image), while more dryly humorous than the other pieces, seems a bit too easy and much less resonant.

Gober’s work has been so well discussed recently that it’s difficult to find something to say about it that hasn’t already been said. However, most of the adjectives that came to my mind upon encountering this particular grouping—such as isolate, melancholy, somber, monastic, poignant—indicated a vision in which the pathos of life is expressed by the things of the world, what in Latin is called lacrimae rerum. This acknowledgment of the persistent residue of meanings that inhere in the quotidian object suggested itself as the moral as well as esthetic imperative motivating Gober’s enterprise.

Paula Marincola