Thursday, April 14th, 2005

Robert Gober at Matthew Marks Gallery

Until April 23
523 W. 24th Street, between Tenth Avenue and West Street, 212-243-0200


installation shots, "Robert Gober" at Matthew Marks Gallery Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery
installation shots, “Robert Gober” at Matthew Marks Gallery Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery

At the ecclesiastical-sounding Matthew Marks Gallery, everything is set up like a church. A nave of sepulchral objects leads the eye directly to a high altar, dominated by a crucifix. This is flanked by a pair of slightly open doors suggestive of chapels, or perhaps a vestry and sacristy. Images evenly paced along the walls recall stations of the cross, and a sculptural arrangement at the entrance to the exhibit functions rather like a baptismal font. You don’t have to be with the Inquisition, however, to detect unabashed blasphemy in the art of Robert Gober.

The Christ figure is decapitated and has been made to function as a fountain. Water squirts from his breasts and pours noisily into a latrine-like hole in the gallery’s concrete floor. Odd objects have been placed in proximity to the crucifix: a white, molded-plastic garden chair, a household rubber glove, a carton of oversized yellow lightbulbs. It is not clear whether they are to be read as altar furniture or witnesses at the Passion.

The tomblike slabs turn out to be a repeating piece of Styrofoam flotsam; these are surmounted by such objects as a bowl of plastic fruit, nailed-down driftwood, and a packet of diapers. The images on the walls are pages from the New York Times, chronicling the September 11 attacks, onto which fragmentary gouaches depicting sexual intimacy are rendered in a flimsy hand. It turns out that the tableaux on one wall are repeated in mirror image on the wall facing.

In two corners are what can be read as inverted gargoyles: Tree-trunks that give birth to the lower half of an adult male’s leg, wearing shoe and sock and exposing a hairy calf, or else a waswork of a hermaphrodite chest, the one breast sagging, the other hirsuteThe baptismal font, meanwhile, is a couple of oddly joined white, metal trash cans, closed off by a plank that supports a neatly folded black priest’s shirt, with its Roman collar. Upon this garment is a newspaper clipping of a Stetson-wearing, grinning woman at the 2004 Republican Party convention, who wears on her chin a Band-Aid that sports a purple heart. The article explains the symbol was worn in mockery of the military valor of Senator Kerry.

Politics keeps company with religiosity elsewhere in this enigmatic installation. Peek into the anterooms behind the altar, for instance, and you discover that the water source of the Christ-fountain is a pair of bathtubs in which the bathers’ legs can be viewed — hirsute in the one, smooth, hairless, and presumably female in the other. Whatever their genders, each has been reading a newspaper supplement carrying the Starr Report.

A sometime altar boy who left the Church in opposition to its stance on homosexuality, the openly gay Mr. Gober has always traded heavily on his rejected Catholic heritage. A 1997 installation at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, for instance, drew Christian anathema and artworld opprobrium in equal measure with its central motif of a giant Madonna penetrated by a supersized culvert.

From the plumbed Virgin it was a short step to the fountain Christ, but both are part of an ongoing preoccupation with drains. A number of sculptures and installations, dating back to the 1980s, feature sinks: alone, protruding from wallpaper depictions of forests, manipulated into the form of a gravestone. His obsession bridges what is anyway a narrow gulf in this confounding artist’s aesthetic between the sacred and the profane.

Mr. Gober belonged to a generation of artists who emerged in the 1980s to fuse personal identity politics and postmodernist theorizing about “the body.” His sink motif inevitably recalls Duchamp’s notorious “Fountain,” the up-ended urinal which is the “Desmoiselles D’Avignon” of appropriation art. This mixed pedigree goes some way to explaining the unsettling feature of Mr. Gober’s art: It is at once literal and arcane.

Much has been made of the fact that almost everything in Mr. Gober’s work is handmade by the artist and his studio. The flotsam, the driftwood, the trash cans, turn out to be bronze casts. The newspapers have been reprinted onto archival paper; the plastic chair and porcelain fixtures, hand-modeled in clay; the lightbulbs, hand-blown.

Sometimes this gives an enigmatic sheen to objects you’d otherwise quickly pass by. Things that at first seem appropriated turn out to have disconcertingly odd surfaces. They can be somewhat yucky, like the hairy wax legs of which he is so fond. But this shimmer of expressivity is illusory: It doesn’t arise from the act of depiction; rather, it is a theatrical effect.

The first, negative impressions turn out to have been sound: This is appropriation that just happens to be handmade, nihilism ex-nihilo. Craft is merely a means to convey obsessiveness, to wallow further in the banal, not to transcend it.

Similarly, the first impression of Mr. Gober’s work is of an anti-clerical gesture, someone out to parade a hatred of the Roman Catholic Church. But like the wobbly-edged literalism of the plastic chair that isn’t plastic, the art tries hard to unsettle such an extreme conclusion. There seems the possibility of some kind of meaningful interconnection between the personal, the political, the spiritual.

But however much Mr. Gober trades in dualities — personal and collective, sacred and profane, masculine and feminine, literal and transcendent — he’s ultimately a leveler: In the maelstrom of a sick, sad mind, ever focused on denigration, sacred images are detritus, trash is venerated. He is caught in his dualism: He oscillates between blantancy and obscurantism, without ever resolving into metaphor.

Mr. Gober grabs collective iconography greedily: Where angels fear to tread, he has taken on September 11. By juxtaposing it with the Starr Report, he equates, in a degrading way, the lethal intrusion of a gang of fanatics into the lives of thousands of innocent civilians and a fanatically censorious investigation of one public man’s private affairs. It is a banal, desperate grab at meaning.

Yet Mr. Gober’s art may be religious in ways its author never intended. I am a liberal, agnostic Jew, but wandering around this irritating yet enervating installation, with its devalued images and fruitless obsessiveness, I began to think: This is a convincing representation of Hell.