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“Robert Gober:

Sculpture + Drawing”

At the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden to Apr. 23

No one comes to Robert Gober easily. In a catalog interview with the artist, Walker Art Center curator and exhibit organizer Richard Flood recounts how he arrived at an understanding of Gober’s work over a period of several years in the late ’80s, as consecutive solo shows revealed the artist’s sensibility and focused his viewers’ thinking. Having seen Gober’s works only in group shows—from “Real Inventions/Invented Functions” at SoHo’s Laurie Rubin Gallery in 1988, through a couple of big, zeitgeist-y Hirshhorn shows in 1990 and 1996, to “Fact/Fiction: Contemporary Art That Walks the Line” at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art last month—I haven’t been so fortunate. Until now.

With “Sculpture + Drawing,” the Hirshhorn gives Gober the most sympathetic multigallery installation it has provided any artist since its 1994 Bruce Nauman retrospective (a Walker/ Hirshhorn co-production). The museum’s narrow corridors and curved galleries can wreak havoc on group shows, forcing not-always-welcome juxtapositions of scale and isolating installations from one another. A thematically linked gathering of artists can be fragmented into a sequence of small solo outings, as if the curators had undertaken multiple, simultaneous “Directions” shows. But when the work of a single, particularly theatrical artist needs to establish its own domain, careful handling of the Hirshhorn’s mazy circular floor plan can offer a path to places other museums can’t go.

If you really want to feel the force of Gober’s enigmatically warped bodily and domestic imagery, you should make your first pass through the exhibition quickly, taking its brunt without the cushion of reflection or analysis—there’ll be time later for those. The small first gallery holds a loosely worked post-Pop 1976 painting of a pair of hands washing dishes at a kitchen sink. In so cozy a room, so familiar a scene is almost lulling. The more accustomed you are to the usual scale of the unaltered museum space, the stronger you’ll feel the blow when you turn to the right to face a wall holding a common household door frame. It’s open, and you’re free to pass through, into the room where its door—the common six-panel type—rests on the opposite wall. You’d never balk at the door frame in a house, but here it’s way too tight. It pressurizes the space, physically intimating that you’re going to be required to grapple with private, personal things in the very public galleries that follow.

Set into the wall of the following corridor is another door—blank, industrial, and shut tight against unauthorized entry, like one you might find on the back of a warehouse. Tied stacks of newspapers stand to the sides. A bare red bulb juts, glowing, out of the wall above. You’re not going in there.

In a dark room appointed with benches and chairs—the theater within the larger theatrical experience—Gober’s world reveals itself. On a screen, Slides of a Changing Painting dissolve into one another: an oblong into a window into a corner, a man’s chest into a woman’s, nipples into sores, trees into dunce-cap voids; coffee cups and culverts, a waterfall, a stream bridged by flesh, a torso with a treasure casket where the heart would be. There’s a feeling of deja vu, as well as what could be described only as its opposite.

The images—from a board painted, scraped, repainted, and photographed thousands of times in 1982 and 1983—recur, in part or in toto, throughout the remainder of the show: in function-thwarting faucetless sinks, in drawings and photographs of trees with dresses hung around or on them, in a torso pierced by a drain, in sewer gratings, in the water rushing down stairs in a video.

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After 20 sculptures and installations, roughly 100 drawings, two videos, and several cases of show announcements, small sculptural elements, and documentation (including a truly risible memo from a meticulous German conservator on the chemical preservation of doughnuts), the show ends, as it began, with doors—they are splayed into the corners of the penultimate gallery in various broken and rejoined configurations—and with a forbidding spatial turn. The exit from the last room, which contains another early painting and a tiny, clumsy, Grosfillex-style plastic chair with a tissue box on its seat, straddling a drain, is barred by a thin rope, relative darkness, and a hard left. After my first visit, I left with an anxious tightness in my chest—right where Gober might place a window, a drain, a rivulet, or a box.

There’s a brain in the table

There’s a heart in the chair

And they all live in Jesus

It’s a family affair

The last verse of “Put a Straw Under Baby,” a 1974 song by Brian Eno, addresses the dwelling of the holy in the everyday, a notion that is subjected to mild sonic mockery: shaky falsetto backing vocals from Robert Wyatt, a twinkly, nursery-rhyme keyboard figure, the deliberately naive sawing of the Portsmouth Sinfonia, its members playing instruments on which they aren’t trained. Like Eno, Gober is a lapsed Catholic, but he doesn’t treat immanence so lightly. Careful consideration of his oeuvre reveals that it’s his main subject. But more than just the divine rests in his objects.

To Gober, faith is muddled with sexuality, grace with guilt, childhood with trauma, birth with death. And in his work all these things are always shifting into one another, conflicting and resolving. Manifesting their transformations sometimes gets him into trouble. Though he has assiduously attempted to avoid controversy, saying that his intention never is to offend, he doesn’t shy away from the things he feels compelled to make. A life-sized concrete Madonna pierced through her belly by a culvert, which he included in a 1997 L.A. installation, prompted outrage among Catholics who believed the Virgin had been violated. Other viewers, believing and non-, saw only a conduit of mercy.

Gober sexualizes objects without making them sexy; his work can be about pleasure without being pleasurable, as when a cock-stiff candle sprouts from a hairy slab of wax. Even with the mortality angle factored in, the piece is far less obvious than it sounds, and not just because the hair looks more like chest hair than pubic hair. Gober’s drawings conceptually align faucet holes with nipples, and tweak a prison window, a drain, and some bushy, faint-trunked trees into a genital configuration—the way out is the way in. His conceptual concerns grow out of his formal concerns, and his formal concerns have always been with him. In a 1975 drawing, a stout cylinder of Ajax and a curvy squeeze-bottle of Ivory liquid play out a kitchen-sink drama; in the background, out the window, is a bifurcated tree, its branching trunk prefiguring forms as different as a split-top sink backsplash and, inverted, Mary’s outstretched arms.

The way content resides in Gober’s forms is embodied in 1982’s Untitled Pair of Brains. The piece is housed in a compact vitrine countersunk into a wall, right next to another case containing a red wax cast of a girl’s discarded shoe. The texture of the unconvoluted cerebrums is that of plaster. But they aren’t idiot brains, and it’s not as if they have been worn smooth of any once-firm knowledge. They hold what they hold deep in their cores; they are filled at a sub-subconscious level, beneath knowing, beneath feeling. (It’s relatively simple to work Gober’s art into several symbolic schemes, but that’s not where its meaning lives. The artist always takes pains to avoid things that are too easy to unravel.)

Following the brains’ example: What’s in a sink? Or in a plank? A light bulb? A slipcovered, cushionless chair? How about in a playpen in the shape of an X? Immanent things haven’t been placed there; they’ve always been there. Never having been filled, the pieces have the presence of reliquaries. It’s as if it were possible both to commemorate something and to precede it. On one gallery announcement, a sketch of a faucetless sink backsplash that has been made into a headstone announces, “Robert Gober”; the epitaph: “New Work.”

Note that “real” ordinary objects, though they may possess symbolic valences, harboring meanings according to our projections onto them, don’t function as Gober’s immanence-bearing ordinary objects do. His things seem begotten, not made, despite obviously having been created. They’re all patently, sometimes painfully, handmade, often of baldly inappropriate materials. Deliberate, sometimes rough, handicraft not only separates Gober’s objects from everyday, immanence-free, mass-produced items, but also emphasizes the defective worldliness of what he makes in the face of the perfect immanence of God.

The first time you ever live in a newly built house, you’re surprised by the imperfections. Flaws that a few years later you would surely chalk up to wear and tear, you discover, are inherent in the structure from the beginning. Some are unavoidable, some aren’t, but they are always there. And that’s why Gober makes his own sinks, his own doors, even his own leaves, coins, and ice skates. It’s not because of the “charm” of the homemade, or because he bows to an inner need for labor. It’s because care and error are always twinned in the products of the hand. CP