Important Art by Robert Gober
Half Stone House
Half Stone House was one of the first pieces of sculpture Gober ever made. It stemmed from an impulse he had to make doll houses out of materials he found on the streets, hoping to make some money from them. Yet, he found himself surprisingly preoccupied with the fabrication of the miniature house, later explaining that "when I made Half Stone House, that's when I knew I was going to be a sculptor because I was waking up and going to sleep and spending every free moment I could thinking about it." He quickly realized that what he was making was art.
The house depicted in this work recalls a typically American suburban home for a middle-class family. However, rather than embodying the comfort and security promised by the suburban domicile, this house produces a sense of eerie abandonment. The overall appearance of the house is familiar to the viewer, but the emptiness is striking - a home's purpose is to provide shelter for people, yet there is no sign of human presence and activity in this house. Additionally, a doll house is traditionally a toy for children, especially for young girls, where they can mimic the daily activities of life they observe around them. But Gober's doll house has an uncomfortable edge, recalling Freud's ideas of the uncanny - that which is familiar and yet strange at the same time. The uncanny is something that he would pursue for the rest of his career.
Like many of Gober's works, the doll house is rooted in his own life experiences. Gober later recalled, "my father, as a man, built the house that we lived in. This is what I learned a man does: builds houses." Here, Gober's version of masculinity is very different from the more traditional approach of his father; to build a doll house is not physically demanding, but instead requires more seemingly feminine skills, such as the ability to work on a small scale with attention to detail and patience.
Wood, stone, glass, stainless steel, paper, paint, linoleum-block print - Collection of Sue and John Wieland, Atlanta
Slides of a Changing Painting
To make Slides of a Changing Painting, Gober worked on the same piece of board over the course of a year, taking hundreds of photographs of the various transformations to create a "memoire of painting." After applying paint and photographing the image, he scraped off the paint layer to create a series of different images - a bare room, a drain, a man's chest. The photographs were then shown as an 89-image slideshow. The images were later projected onto a gallery wall; as one image dissolved into the next, collectively they offer a deeply personal record, like the pages of a diary. The process of documenting the creation and destruction of Gober's creative thoughts allowed him to evaluate his artistic practice and explore content and imagery that captivated him at that time and in subsequent years. Gober later described the process he used: "I took thousands of slides over the course of a year and then edited them down and showed them with a dissolve - basically a memoir of a painting."
The changing slides create a narrative through the contrast of similar and yet dissimilar images. The regularity of the projector acts almost like a ticking clock, emphasizing the temporality of painting as a medium. The images are fleeting, since the paintings cannot be experienced as they were created in person and the individual images only appear for brief moments before they turn into something new. This fleeting nature also means that the textures of the paintings cannot be closely scrutinized. The movement of the projector is insistent and reliable at the same time, reminding the viewer of the inevitable progression through time in life and the unavoidable changes that the passage of time brings.
According to Gober himself, the piece was not well received. He says "it was met with a yawn," and consequently "I put it away and kind of forgot about it." However, it soon became clear that the imagery Gober explored in Slides of a Changing Painting would inform his artistic practice for the rest of his life.
89 color 35mm slides shown in three parts - Walker Art Center, Minneapolis
David Salle defines Robert Gober as "the poet of drains." This untitled piece is one of a series of sinks that Gober began to make in the 1980s. The sink recalls Duchamp's famous urinal readymade, which consisted of a real urinal turned on its side and exhibited in the New York City in 1917. Despite the similar appearance, Gober's sinks are not found objects. Instead, they are carefully crafted by the artist out of plaster, wood, and paint - materials that would not hold water were the sink to be plumbed in.
From a distance, this sink looks real; but, upon closer inspection, its handmade quality is clear. The paint and plaster of the sink's surface does not imitate porcelain perfectly. Gober based his first sculptures on the standard bathroom sinks he had known growing up. The repeated study of the sink motif allows Gober to revisit and reconsider several themes over a long period of time. The strong similarities between subsequent versions recalls the serialized practices of Minimalist sculpture and painting dominating the contemporary art scene of New York in the 1960s and 1970s. Yet, noticeably different from both the readymade and Minimalist art, Gober's sinks insert the handmade, craft aesthetic into the contemporary art gallery. Some critics have claimed that the sinks recall human faces. Historian and New York Times art critic Peter Schjeldahl, for example, argues that "they are anthropomorphic, with holes (where the taps would be) like empty eyes." Gober has denied attempting to make them look like faces, but he does reference to the physicality of the human body.
Beyond these references to monuments of earlier, avant-garde art, Gober's sinks also engage with the realities of their own time. The series of sinks were partly made as a direct response to the AIDS crisis, which was decimating the artistic community in New York throughout the 1980s. As Gober put it, "I was a gay man living in the epicenter of 20th-century America's worst health epidemic, and the sinks were a byproduct of that. What do you do when you stand in front of a sink? You clean yourself. Yet they were about the inability to [do that]." The exposed male body is an unseen but nevertheless present entity in the sink sculptures, highlighting the vulnerability that Gober observed all around him - and undoubtedly feared - considering his close interactions with victims of the epidemic through his volunteer work, activism, and art practice during those trying years.
Plaster, wood, steel, wire lath, and enamel paint - The Museum of Modern Art, New York
To create Cat Litter, Gober once again undermined the traditional expectations of the found object. What looks like a bag of real cat litter is in fact a carefully constructed version of it, hand-made and painted completely by the artist. Like Andy Warhol's famous soup cans, Brillo pads, and other common consumer products found in the works of Pop art, Gober's bag of cat litter brings the necessary things of contemporary life into the art gallery. However, whereas the Pop artists borrowed the content of real life and presented it in highly stylized ways that transformed the simple items of commercial culture into fine art, Gober presents his content as it would likely appear in the non-art context of the viewer's life. Furthermore, whereas Warhol delighted in confusing the authenticity of his art works by producing paintings in a serialized, factory-like production mode that included assistants, Gober is solely responsible for every step of the creative process and final presentation.
As with many of Gober's works, Cat Litter is concerned with perceptions of cleanliness. Art critic Peter Schjedahl explains that Gober sees the cat litter "as an accommodation for filth that permits amicable relations between humans and felines. This idea suggests a theory of civilization: the reconciling of gross realities and refined desires." Once again, Gober surprisingly invokes the human body with the presentation of an inanimate, commercial object. The bodily functions of animals within present-day, domestic spaces require the actions of humans to restore cleanliness to those personal environments.
In several exhibitions, Gober has presented Cat Litter as part of a larger installation comprised of several works. Originally shown at the Paula Cooper Gallery in New York in 1989, Cat Litter debuted as bags placed on the ground leaning against three walls in the gallery space. The walls were covered in wall paper created by Gober, depicting images of a sleeping Caucasian man and a hanging African-American man. In the center of the gallery space was a free-standing white satin wedding dress. This combination of imagery and objects was undoubtedly unsettling, intentionally confronting viewers with the ideas of unpleasant and unjust inequalities that exist in our everyday lives that seem to be constantly covered over, as if they were nothing more than the inevitable excrement that one must tolerate from a household pet but that can be easily masked with the wonders of modern culture like cat litter. Viewers are invited to wonder about the reasons why these items are present in the same space, where they came from, what they signify, and how they may seem familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. In the 1980s, gay marriage was still illegal, and the wedding dress represents a distinctly heteronormative approach to relationships where, according to Gober's configuration, husbands and wives are kept like pets, with each party tolerating the "uncleanliness" that accompanies their perception of the opposite sex.
Plaster, ink, and latex paint - The Museum of Modern Art, New York
A human leg, complete with shoe, sock and hairs on its waxy skin, projects from the wall. The surprising degree of realism in the depiction of the leg increases the shock and surreal effect upon seeing it seemingly protruding from the wall. As critic and scholar Pablo Baler argues, "the work suggests the phenomenon of the uncanny - something ordinary that suddenly seems strange, bringing out fears and collapsing certainties."
According to curator Richard Flood, Gober "saw the expanse of flesh between the sock and the cuff as an erogenous zone" in the leg. Like a burlesque routine that only reveals portions of the exposed human body at a time, here the tease of not knowing what the rest of the body looks like and the process of imagining it instead heightens the curiosity of the viewer. Unlike more obviously erotic parts of the human body, the lower leg is the part of a man's body where he frequently but unconsciously reveals his skin. Gober was inspired to make the work after watching the leg of an attractive passenger on a plane journey. He said, "it was about the challenge of making a sculpture about that moment where the sock doesn't meet the pants and you see the flesh and the hair of the person."
Typically for Gober, this work was also partly inspired by personal experience, in this case a childhood memory. He recalls his mother, who was a nurse, telling him about her first experience in hospital, where she assisted on an amputation. The doctor handed her the amputated leg and she didn't know what to do with it. This image of a disembodied leg always unnerved Gober and played on his imagination. Considering this memory, Gober's leg sculpture could just as quickly symbolize a victim as anything else. The leg is abruptly severed from the rest of the body, and the remnants of clothing and the presence of the sock and shoe hint at an unexpected result, as if the man this leg belonged to was suddenly assaulted. As with Gober's previous body of work, his series of disembodied limbs presents the familiar and innocuous parts of ourselves and our common experiences in uncanny places and manners that insert a frightening or sinister reading of the work, its context, and its meaning.
Beeswax, cotton, wood, leather, and human hair - The Museum of Modern Art, New York
This untitled work consists of a hand-cast beeswax candle, the base of which is covered with human hair. The plain candle is a simple, familiar object, yet it often functions to evoke particular behaviors and moods in its viewers and users, whether to encourage somber devotion in a church setting or elicit romantic desires in an intimate gathering. The addition of the human hair emphasizes a salacious reading of a deceptively simple thing, as Gober turns the candle into a "phallic symbol," as critic Walter Robinson puts it. He also points out that despite "its unlit wick testifying to its unsullied state, this 'virgin' candle is carnal all the same." As in many of Gober's previous works, Untitled candle disrupts the normal relationship between our physical reactions to everyday surroundings and investigates the psychological and symbolic power of the objects of our everyday lives.
Gober's use of wax as a malleable material, able to be burned and melted, points to the weakness of the human body. When considered as a phallic symbol, the candle stands in for male desire and virility. But the candle appears to be calling out to be lit, and subsequently destroyed, hinting at the vulnerability of male arousal. The candle also recalls Gober's Catholic upbringing, especially his childhood service as an altar boy, as well as Gober's own discomfort growing up as a homosexual within the Catholic tradition. Additionally, the candle can refer to the recent AIDS crisis that preoccupied Gober in many ways throughout the 1980s and 1990s, recalling the destruction of so many in the male, gay community and also resembling the many candles lit in memorial services for victims of the disease.
Beeswax, string, human hair - Collection of the artist
Untitled Installation, Madonna detail
In 1997, Gober unveiled a large-scale installation within the Geffen Contemporary, a warehouse space and extension of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Like his other sculptures and installations, each work within the installation was hand-made meticulously by the artist himself. As critic Christopher Knight remarked at the time the installation was first shown, "Gober has transformed the pristine space of the museum into something at once old-fashioned and brand-new: an unabashedly romantic grotto of sacred and profane love." Gober did indeed create an indoor grotto, as several components of the installation were situated on top of storm drains that covered water-filled tide pools below. Knight goes on to claim that "the untitled piece engages sight and sound in order to seduce the viewer into a kind of baptism, both spiritual and material."
Perhaps the most striking element of the installation is a six-foot high concrete Madonna statue, penetrated through the abdomen by a culvert (large drain pipe) and placed to hover over a large storm drain. According to critic Roberta Smith, the culvert piercing the Madonna "turns her into an eccentric crucifix at once shocking and grandly tragic." Though this iconography of the Madonna statue does resemble such similar mass-produced figurines and devotional items, Gober's insistence on handmade production and larger-than-life scale subverts the easy distribution and use of such Madonna figures. Gober's Madonna is made semi-monumental, comparing the grand scale of much religious iconography to the much smaller scale of objects for personal devotion. However, the insertion of the culvert appears as a fatal blow to the Madonna figure, calling into question whatever spiritual relief or reassurance she could provide to her worshippers.
The subject of water has appeared in previous artworks by Gober, whether through its choreographed presence and movement or through its deliberate absence. Drawing once again on his interest in drains and plumbing, Gober places storm drains throughout the installation, covered by such items as the Madonna statue and two silk-lined suitcases. Adding to the pronounced sound of the rushing water throughout the piece, a waterfall streams down a wooden staircase behind the Madonna statue, draining into another storm drain at the bottom of the stairs. The Catholic imagery and its relationship to water in religious ceremony is palpable. The components of the installation are laid out in a four point arrangement, mimicking a cruciform shape. As if moving through the stages of the cross in Catholic ritual of devotion and humility, viewers pass from one item to the next, meditating on the presumably familiar but disturbing imagery to the sound of moving water, as if being washed over by the purifying waters activated in religious services and baptisms. As in other works, Gober returns to his own personal experience with the Catholic Church to investigate its lingering influence on his emotions and psyche, forcing others to join him in this uncomfortable journey of self-reflection. As curator Richard Flood explains, "In Los Angeles, Gober was the architect of a chapel that could accommodate him and the author of a religion that could sustain him."
Plaster and metal - Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art