Nixed Metaphors: Lee Ann Norman on Robert Gober
Robert Gober’s work calls for spare words to match its minimalist form, quiet contemplation to match its understated yet striking affect. “The Heart is Not a Metaphor” is the artist’s first large-scale career survey in the U.S. It includes about 130 objects spanning mediums, including drawing and photography, and features a small selection of work by artists with whom he has worked or collaborated with as a curator. The exhibition is loosely chronological, following Gober’s development of ideas around home, the quotidian, violence and sex, faith, purification and ritual. And like the work, the exhibition design is didactically understated — there is only one panel in each gallery for general context — while the walls are unpainted, and in some cases unfinished, with panel beams exposed on one side making everything look and feel generic, like a television playing mindlessly in the background.
Gober’s meticulously crafted sculptures of common objects like paint cans, ice skates, or cribs are familiar, even though something is always a little bit off about them. These are things we use, things we have, things that are a part of us. But his limbs never seem to connect to complete bodies: they jut out from walls, contain odd protrusions and indentations, or end up where they normally would not be, such as a fireplace. The cribs are dangerously slanted, oddly shaped, and “butter” sometimes “sleeps” in them; the sinks cannot function, and closets are surprisingly shallow. He places us in the familiarity of the home — our private spaces, places where we cleanse, rejuvenate, define and refine ourselves. Through his work, Gober wants us to learn about the places where our hearts truly live.
Well, maybe not our hearts, but certainly his. The sculptures and environments as signifiers of origin and daily living are meant to be familiar, but too much of it feels willfully insular and self-focused. In Gober’s world, everything looks like a neutral, but not too much seems to match.
Gober came to prominence in New York during the 1980s when the city was being ravaged by the AIDS crisis. Much of his work responds to and comments on that moment. Two of his wallpaper installations are on view, and Untitled (1989 – 1996) still unsettles me years later upon viewing it in person again. A sketch of a sleeping man with brown hair alternates with the image of a man with dark brown skin and white knee-length pants hanging from a tree by a noose, over and over again from floor to ceiling. A white wedding gown hanging on a chicken-wire-frame seamstress’s mannequin in the middle of the room would seem to signify purity, promise, hope, passion, and violence. Sculptures of bags of cat litter are placed here and there against the walls. Gober has talked about this installation being inspired by the collision of our country’s shadowy past and present: the domestic terrorism of lynching and the denial of rights to same sex marriage. The work highlights the lengths to which we go to sanitize situations and make something undesirable tolerable and tame.
But I find it difficult to take these juxtapositions seriously as provocation. It feels like a curious “default” representation of queer history, which is often depicted through the experience of white gay men. I was much too young to really understand what was happening socially then, but I imagine that in the mid-1980s and early ’90s — the height of the American AIDS crisis — the right to marry was not the most pressing issue on anyone’s LGBTQ agenda, although it appears the issue was important for Gober. His environments created for the Dia Chelsea in 1992 that featured sinks with working plumbing, sculptures of rat poison boxes also included bundled stacks of photolithograph print newspapers interspersed with advertisements of him wearing a wedding dress. But while too many people were unable to share their last moments with their loved ones at this time, to compare the ban on same-sex marriage to the terrorism of lynchings doesn’t feel right. In fact it feels like privileged, self-referential navel gazing.
A response to the September 11, 2001 World Trade Center attacks, Untitled (2003-2005) features a headless Jesus-like fountain from which cleansing water flows from the nipples into a gaping hole in the floor. Framed photolithographs of the September 12, 2001 edition of The New York Times line the walls, the pages having been overlaid with pastel drawings of humans embracing, and pallets aligned to recall church pews complete the space. If we are to seek comfort in times of sorrow, be washed by the holy water, and covered and cleansed by the blood of the lamb, why does this installation feel so cheeky? Gober was raised Catholic, but later left the church, disillusioned. Nonetheless he says he created this environment as a place for contemplation in a time of tragedy. This installation doesn’t offer comfort, however, but seems to provoke. This work isn’t about a collective spiritual crisis of “we,” but about something very specific to Gober’s experience.
As I wandered through the exhibition studying the early paintings, reference drawings, sinks, and other sculpted objects, I sighed deeply and repeatedly. Gober’s visual insistence on bland universal definitions of roots, home, values and mores, and even faith is exhausting. I can sense that the work is about him, that it is specific, but everything I see tries so hard to fade into the proverbial woodwork while coyly inviting me to acknowledge and congratulate its difference.