New York

Robert Gober

Robert Gober outlined his iconography early in his career with Slides of a Changing Painting, 1982–83. To create this work, he mounted a small painting on a board and photographed it as he changed the image. The 80 slides in this project—ranging from a male torso becoming female, to doors and windows, to trees and running water, to wounds and lesions—have provided the raw material for much of the artist’s work over the last ten years.

Gober has said, “I always thought of myself as a painter but I could never make paintings,” and as his career has progressed his sculptures, installations, and dioramas have become increasingly pictorial and painterly. He has explored the illusionistic and spatial possibilities of painting in three dimensions through the remade objects (doll houses, sinks, cribs, beds, a wedding dress, a giant cigar, etc.) that comprise his oeuvre.

In his most recent exhibition, Gober placed five objects around the two rooms of the gallery. In the main room, the sound of running water drew the viewer to a sewer grate. The grate itself was compelling simply for its weight, fine workmanship, and the slight unevenness of the bars, but what lay below was both an incredible feat of engineering and a remarkably disturbing image. Brick walls framed a chrome drain—embedded in the torso of a three-dimensional male figure made of beeswax and human hair—through which water continuously ran. The entire piece including brick wall and water pumps was made in the artist’s studio and then lowered into a hole in the gallery floor. Gober sees “the drains as metaphors functioning in the same way as traditional paintings, as a window into another world. However, the world that you enter into through the metaphor of the drain would be something darker and unknown. . . .” A world in this case that draws on Albert Camus’ The Plague, 1948, in which decomposing bodies completely clog the sewers of Paris.

Two other pieces—oversized sticks of butter, again out of beeswax, lying exposed on wrappers spread out on the floor—added to the threnody. The sticks were the correct size and shape for a casket, and the waxiness of the butter mimicked the cosmetic horror of the mortician’s craft. There was a strong connection between the butter and the sewer pieces, between the ideas of nourishment and the family and death in Gober’s work. Gober has described his sink pieces as presenting “an image of cleansing without that possibility,” and not only do the sticks of butter formally mirror the negative space of the sewer hole, but the sewer piece brings the domestic horror in much of Gober’s work into the public sphere.

Gober began his career by making broken doll houses which he has since furnished with a set of dysfunctional objects: headless brides, hanged men and genital wallpaper, disembodied legs and buttocks, and functionless plumbing. In this show, America’s hearth-and-apple-pie image and its obsession with cleanliness butted up against ignorance and intolerance in the blank space of a sewer choked with death. As Gober has written, “For me death has temporarily overtaken life in New York City. And most of the artists I know are fumbling for ways to express this.” While none of his pieces directly depict this condition, his work captures this feeling more than that of any artist of his generation.

Andrew Perchuk