BWW Review: Out of Your Comfort Zone and Into ROBERT GOBER: THE HEART IS NOT A METAPHOR at the MoMA

Desensitized culture or no desensitized culture, Robert Gober and his artworks have the power to disconcert. Many of us have seen the historical traumas that Gober confronts--urban blight, the AIDS crisis, the 9/11 attacks--but few of us have seen them represented like this. The typical Gober method, so far as there is one, is to pluck out everyday objects and re-combine them in socially, politically, and sexually suggestive ways. Thus, he at once creates symbols of crisis and suggests the sinister nature of the everyday. Such output is served quite well by Robert Gober: The Heart Is Not a Metaphor, a meandering exhibition that teems with incongruity and surprise--feet and abdomens sticking out of walls, giant cigars, bottles of gin, an empty wedding dress, a bag of donuts on a pedestal.

Although this characterization of Gober and of his Museum of Modern Art retrospective has its exceptions, Gober generally avoids hard, brutal shocks in order to cultivate effects that are clammy and uncomfortable. He did just that in the plaster reproductions of old-fashioned sinks that he produced starting in the mid 1980s, and that became his first widely-recognized works. These reference the ravages of the first AIDS outbreaks and the impossibility of cleansing oneself, physically, perhaps psychologically; they also have the uncanny side-effect of looking like cartoon ghosts. And fortunately for both the theatrical and the meditative sides of his personality, Gober came of age as installation art was settling into maturity. True to one of Gober's strong suits, The Heart Is Not a Metaphor features five fully-integrated environments. The most piquant of these is a 1992 installation that combines a woodland mural, barred windows, and flowing sinks in its central enclosure. Bracketed by dark rooms with haphazard piles of newspaper, this luminous space was originally arranged within the Dia Center for the Arts and was recreated by curators Ann Temkin and Paulina Pobocha under the guidance of Gober himself.

Overall, the setup followed by Temkin and Pobocha proceeds by stages: at the start, a sampling of works from across Gober's career; next, an entire congregation of sinks; after these, installation upon installation; then a motley of Gober objects, room after room of them, until everything converges on one last art enviroment, created in the wake of the 2001 World Trade Center attacks. Gober also takes his own turn as curator, coordinating a gallery of works by Joan Semmel, Nancy Shaver, and Robert Beck at the show's core. (Case in point about Gober's knack for the disturbing: the Beck entry is a video of someone sawing the antlers off a slayed deer.) The supporting captions and the severity of some entries make Gober's life history impossible to overlook--his openly gay identity, his affinity for archival research, his (severe by definition) Catholic upbringing. Yet even the catalog, with its painstaking timeline and erudite main essay, can't prevent this exhibition from being an eminently visceral experience. Those installations can be blindingly lyrical; the better objects can be almost suffocatingly weird; what Gober the artist can do frequently overshadows who Gober the man is. In the case of one untitled entry from 1997--which begins with an suitcase, which opens to reveal a metal grate and a brick-lined shaft, which leads down into a pond filled with gummy plants, where a man holds a baby on his lap--the effects aren't just memorable. They are almost miraculous.

It is amazing, though, how little laughter there is The Heart Is Not a Metaphor. Many a one of Gober's artistic forebears, from René Magritte to Claes Oldenberg, would have played the same material for at least a few smiles. And there could be a lot to smile at in a giant stick of butter in a crib (Gober's 1993-2013 Untitled) or a long-haired cheese (Gober's 1992-1993 Long-Haired Cheese, and yes, I know how obvious that was). However, because these occur within a body of work replete with images of lynchings, poverty, and genitalia--often drawn in Gober's blotchy style, a sort of Eric Fischl draughtmanship taken a couple skill levels down--they mostly inspire nervous, possibly guilty titters. What violence lies behind such creations, even the ones that should be harmless? Return to the 1997 Untitled: is that baby about to be baptized, or about to be drowned?

I see all this as Gober's most courageous and troubling act of appropriation: he has taken the essential techniques of classic Surrealism and applied them to the kind of horrors that, to be honest, seldom seemed to cross the typical Surrealist's mind. "Brutal and homicidal chaos" that was "almost unbearable to watch" was Gober's description of 9/11, and would be a fitting description for many of the other catastrophes that his works may reference, or may not, but--just to be safe--probably do. Such associations send shockwaves through The Heart Is Not a Metaphor, impacting even the dollhouse--made for pay by the young, striving Gober--that sits in one of the final rooms of the show. It was constructed in 1979-1980, yet it looks very much like a symbol of innocence lost when seen from 2014.

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From This Author Patrick Kennedy