Los Angeles

Robert Gober

Robert Gober took four years to make his new untitled installation at the Geffen Contemporary, two to think it, two to craft it. The result doesn’t so much exceed expectations as it utterly defeats them. Nothing here is quite what you would expect—of Robert Gober, or of contemporary art.

Just to begin, Gober’s piece reinstitutes the tradition of the grand narrative summation. Such summations rarely constitute an artist’s best work, strained, as they often are, under the weight of definitive answers, defensive posturing, or high purpose: Gustave Courbet’s The Artist’s Studio, Paul Gauguin’s Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, and Marcel Duchamp’s The Large Glass, and its later three-dimensional version, Étant donnés, I think, make this point. Gober’s version combines aspects of all these works—along with bits and pieces of myriad others. But if his theatrical tableau reaches a bit too far and wide, it does not reach too high. It’s grand, but not grandiose.

Throughout his career, it seems, Gober has been allegorizing the everyday travails of his life as gay man in straight culture—from the tilted crib of his infancy, through years of domestic dysfunction, to time spent in the jailhouse of culture’s normative nature. But if in his early career he was lost, at mid-career he is found! Gober, it seems, would bring his psychodrama to a conclusion—in the form of a simple quasi-biblical story of redemption.

If Gober’s tale is simple, however, his telling of it is not; the work’s multi-layered iconography would give Panofsky pause. The unusual vertically bipartite composition—the upper level separated from the lower by the museum’s floor—is indebted to medieval and Renaissance paintings of apotheosic themes, such as the Assumption of the Virgin, in which the hierarchy of heaven and earth is embodied in the design. It is also indebted, of course, to Duchamp’s commentary on that tradition in The Large Glass, in which a “fourth-dimensional” shadow realm rests above the three-dimensional realm of the “bachelors” and the real.

The discretely treated sculptural components inside the installation, the traditional domain of ready-made conceptualism, are elaborately handcrafted, a harmony of thought and practice that sets the devotional tone. Just as Netherlandish artists cloaked Catholic narratives in meticulously detailed renderings of the natural world, sacrificing pictorial logic in order to saturate each discrete configuration with symbolic meaning (sometimes to surrealist effect), Gober cloaks his personal narrative inside meticulously crafted public symbols of art and religion, in layers of memory and erudition too dense to be pried apart, whose meanings are inseparable from the idea of artisanal practice.

As you descend from the platform of the Geffen’s reception area, you see a dimly lit proscenium that fills the museum’s cavernous main gallery. The walls and floor are painted a uniform gray, creating a vast, mildly gloomy color field sparsely inhabited by a six-foot-tall domestic-grotto-style Virgin Mary, two identical oversized suitcases, and a stairway that has been transformed into a fountain, all arranged to suggest the floor plan of a cathedral.

At center stage, the Virgin Mary rests atop a storm drain where the baldachino would be. The Virgin is cast in rough-surfaced concrete, from Gober’s original in clay, and with seeming indifference to political consequence, he has intersected its midsection with a six-foot-length of standard screw—ribbed culvert pipe, cast in bronze. Despite the contemporary tendency to read this configuration, with its Surrealist gestalt, as a violation of woman or Catholicism, it is perfectly articulate within the tradition of medieval Catholicism as a personification of the Church. Just as Jan van Eyck’s oversized Mary in his Madonna in a Church, with columnated robe, personifies the basilica in which she stands, the ribs of Gober’s culvert pipe reprise the vaults of late medieval cathedrals, which themselves were meant to symbolically transform the interior of the church into Mary’s womb (or the body of Christ, depending on the particular exegetic source).

The suitcases that flank the Virgin, whose open lids reveal two more storm drains, establish the transept. Thus, the culvert pipe becomes a metaphorical nave that leads the eye directly toward Gober’s stunning approximation of an apse: a staircase whose steeply ascending cedar steps are inundated by a rapidly descending cascade of water—180 gallons a minute noisily tripping downward, then pooling on the floor before dramatically plunging through a fourth storm drain at the foot of the stairs. This ingenious design embodies the structural simplicity of clapboard Puritanism even as it exploits the theatrical excitement of the baroque. Thus, it inverts the hierarchy of heaven and hell by replacing the supernatural streams of light, symbolized and embodied in the apses of cathedrals, with a naturally embodied earthbound source of redemption.

This Romantic theme of redemptive nature seemingly is reiterated in the allusion to Friedrich’s Cloister Graveyard in the Snow—the weathered Virgin suggesting the decay of institutionalized religion—and brought to full force in the elaborate tableau Gober has installed some eight feet beneath the floor. Peering through the grates of the storm drains is a bit like opening the grisaille doors of an altarpiece, the architectural monuments above theatrically giving way to an inviting paradise, a brilliantly lit subterranean tide pool, complete with sandy bottom, sparkling clear, lightly churning water (about a foot deep throughout), and all the rocks, mussels, seaweed, and such one would expect to find there, each item painstakingly fabricated Vija Celmins–style. The despair and pessimism of Bruce Nauman’s Room with My Soul Left Out gives way to a vision of salvation and hope.

This watery Eden seems vast, but the drains allow only tightly framed, distinct scenes. Beneath the Virgin the sandy bottom is littered with oversized coins, and barely visible through the grates in the suitcase—and easily missed at first—the focal point of Gober’s piece comes into view: a man’s nude, Anglo-middle-American legs and feet, veristically cast in wax. Submerged to midcalf, he holds a diapered infant against his lower abdomen. Oddly, the infant faces forward, its lower body dangling between the man’s slightly parted legs, just below the crotch—a sort of funky conflation of Hans Memling’s St. Christopher and Frida Kahlo’s Giving Birth to Myself, with sexualized overtones.

Thus, the iconographic narrative would seem to be this: the turbulent water pours down the steps and out of the Puritan domestic structure, through the grate at the base of the stairs, and metaphorically through the culvert pipe, into the underground where it is redeemed—an allegory of leaving home leaving the Church, slipping through the cracks, and finding salvation in the counterculture of the underground, which is symbolized by the disorderly common beauty of the tide pool teeming with life. The man in the water, then, would be Gober, whose balding calves and thighs—like Kahlo’s hairy eyebrows and upper lip—constitute his recurring signature. And the baby would be Gober, too, Kahlo’s iconic narrative of martyrdom restaged as a narrative of redemption.

Kahlo’s career-long drama was staged in terms of the sacrificial body—pierced by the handrail, rendered barren, losing babies, losing love. For Gober redemption is a process of remaking and rebirth: one crafts one’s identity as the artisan constructs art, hammering, casting, shaping daily, in a perpetual labor of reincarnation. Thus, for all the grand iconography, the meaning of Gober’s piece is embodied in its form. The Church, and the church of Duchamp’s conceptualism, are just baggage, imprisoned in the gray, bodiless Platonic realm. And the tide pool beneath—part Gauguin’s Tahiti, part holy water, part primordial soup—presents itself not as an emblem of redemptive nature over corrupt culture, but as body over mind, of practice over theory.

After thirty years of sophisticated iconography and ready-made practice, then, Gober inverts this conceptualist hierarchy with ready-made iconography and rigorous practice. It is the embodied devotion that speaks to us in this ambitious tableau, and the grandiosity of its literal complexity is redeemed in the humility of the simple work that it takes to leave home.

Libby Lumpkin is an art critic who lives in Las Vegas.