Film

Robert Gober’s 40-Year Retrospective at MOMA

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The back of a man’s bowler-hatted head. A trio of hooded Klansmen smoking cigars. Dennis Hopper in a gas mask, screaming. These are just a few images that might come to mind when we consider the flipside of “normal.” To those unforgettable visuals — executed by (respectively) René Magritte, Philip Guston, and David Lynch — it’s possible to add another 20th-century icon of angsty unease: Robert Gober’s sink sculptures. Functionless, tomblike, and white as old dentures, the handcrafted fixtures are eerily reminiscent of steers’ skulls sucked dry and bleached by scorching idiot winds.

Inspired by a dream and executed between 1983 and 1986, the 50-odd porcelain pieces launched a 40-year career that has produced rafts of other commanding objects. But while Gober’s more complex works have explicitly tapped timely traumas and upped the ante on the use of uncanny effects, few match the enigmatic force of his plumbing parts. Encountering the homely, sparely constructed, resolutely handmade basins can still trigger the sensation of standing in front of a freshly condemned property or, if you’re in a memorializing mood, of visiting Arlington National Cemetery.

In “Robert Gober: The Heart Is Not a Metaphor,” currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art, 12 of Gober’s sinks rightly take center stage among a sprawling exhibition that includes other discrete objects, three room-size installations, and a single exhibition of other artists’ pieces the sculptor organized at a Chelsea gallery in 1999. Put together by MOMA curators Ann Temkin and Paulina Pobocha, this first large-scale U.S. survey makes a claim for Gober as an AIDS-era postmodernist who stayed true to that epoch’s anti-illusionist conventions. Yet that pat tagline proves inadequate. However much the show’s curators and catalog writers (not to mention the artist himself) urge the viewer to “focus less, or at least not first, on finding ‘meaning’ or a ‘theme’ in the work,” Gober’s broadly narrative efforts pour out alternative storylines like an indefatigably leaky faucet.

Despite its rich formal qualities, Gober’s work is of the kind wrongly celebrated chiefly for being on the right side of history. An AIDS activist and a 1980s New York art world regular, he actively sublimated the horror and estrangement of the Reagan–Bush years into surrealist-inspired, 3-D synecdoches for the era’s deep malaise. From collective anxiety, Gober hatched a shopworn aesthetic that in MOMA’s environs evokes Grandma’s house seen through funhouse-quality bifocals. In one gallery, for instance, you encounter a bare light bulb made from enamel, beeswax, and rope; another contains a playpen slanted weirdly like Hans Holbein’s famous anamorphic skull. A third space tucks a slipcovered armchair dozily into a corner, the better to whisper its odd secret: It’s undersized and therefore deviant.

Because they’re planed, painted, and stitched into significant irregularity, Gober’s hand-wrought objects burst with disquieting metaphors in a way his larger environments do not. One untitled installation at MOMA includes a wedding gown, cast plaster bags of kitty litter, and hand-printed wallpaper with images of a sleeping white man and a hanged black one. Lacking the focus of Gober’s discrete pieces, the life-size diorama setup carries the weight of urgent socio-political issues. Yet even now — at the height of the gay-marriage triumph — the piece feels like it robs the viewer of Gober’s more allusive mysteries. A prediction here for future Gober appreciation: When we remember his work 30 years from now, it will be for the weird hum emanating from his trippy single sculptures, not because he hewed to once-fashionable minimalism or was a charter member of ACT UP.

As Hilton Als points out in the catalog that accompanies Gober’s survey, the artist, like the photographer Diane Arbus, has long believed that he can “make a whole work out of a divided self.” That divided self is America’s house divided, an idea that takes on literal dimensions if we consider Gober’s first mature artwork — a finely detailed dollhouse. After some research, the artist realized Greek Revival style was the first indigenous form of American architecture. A light bulb came on: “To me this seemed so perfect and quintessentially American in its hypocrisy,” he told an interviewer, “that slave owners would use a temple to represent themselves.”

The dollhouse and other objects in this exhibition contain America’s foundational hypocrisy, along with the great theme of the counterculture’s mass alienation. Those subjects are the essential narratives Gober suspends in the dark amber of his illusionism.