The second floor atrium at The Museum of Modern Art is one of the premier contemporary art exhibition spaces in the city, if not the world. It was here that Marina Abramović sat silently, face to face with the multitudes, during The Artist is Present. This is the space where Claes Oldenburg thrillingly recreated his 1970s era installations Mouse Museum and Ray Gun Wing, and where Wolfgang Laib sifted a luminous carpet of blazing yellow hazelnut pollen. For Robert Gober: The Heart Is Not a Metaphor—a fantastic retrospective survey spanning 40 years of his career—currently on view and running into January 2015, the artist has used the space somewhat differently.
On the way to the entrance of Gober’s exhibition in the contemporary galleries beyond the atrium, visitors pass exposed plywood and 2x4s on the blank, uninterrupted, unfinished walls of a house-size structure. It is impressively brash as the show’s opening aesthetic gambit, especially insofar as it registers, at first, as uninviting, something utilitarian that would be better off hidden, covered up. But it is an ironically gleeful squandering of the space; the kind of artist who would do this is absolutely an artist of whom you should take note.
A persistent sense of the uncanny is the primary emotional effect of Gober’s sculptural work. Sculpture and three-dimensional installations make up most of the exhibition; these are his best and his best-known works. But there are also a variety of two-dimensional media on display, some related to the sculpture and some stand-alone. Gober also has a long-standing curatorial practice, and this is represented at MoMA by the novel recreation of one of his exhibitions in a couple of galleries at the center of the larger retrospective. Ann Temkin, Chief Curator of the museum’s Department of Painting and Sculpture, and Associate Curator Paulina Pobocha curated The Heart Is Not a Metaphor, working in close collaboration with the artist himself.
The exhibition comprises several traditional museum galleries displaying individual works, some in series, as well as a number of full room-size installations. (The complexity and depth of Gober’s work requires writing in lists to describe it.) These larger installations are where Gober’s major themes of bodies, purity, sexuality, menace and absence are the most resolved, but throughout, there are numerous examples of his most important calling-card motifs: sinks and wax legs and objects are probably the most famous, but there are also playpens, wallpaper, domestic architectural elements and prison bars throughout the show.
One of last objects in the show is a large doll house that the artist made in 1979–1980 as a more secure way to earn a living with his artistic skills. This resonates back to the beginning of the show, where Gober’s painted plaster sinks clearly suggest the fixtures of a doll house blown up to human scale, but still in the spare, basic aesthetic required to be legible at the tiny scale. No matter how carefully crafted and elegantly finished with multiple coats of semi-gloss paint to mimic porcelain, they never look like store-bought, readymade sinks. This is by no means a flaw in the process or a failure by the artist; it’s a specific and evocative aesthetic that takes evocatively effective advantage of the uncanniness in the almost-readymade.
Certainly, a gallery hung with a collection of sink sculptures with easily-anthropomorphized holes for faucets and drains, but with none of the plumbing hardware, suggests bodies and a frustration of the purifying impulse to wash, but all of this goes so much further in the untitled installation from 1989–1996—almost all of Gober’s work is untitled—made up of floor-to-ceiling wallpaper, a mounted wedding dress and hand-painted plaster sculptures of cat litter. Printed on the wallpaper are alternating images of a semi-eroticized white man asleep in bed and a gruesomely lynched black man hanging from a tree. The wedding dress stands on an unseen frame to appear as if worn by an invisible woman. The sculptures of bags of cat litter suggest another side of the purity explicit in the wedding dress: it is a domestic material used to sanitize excrement and to make its removal easier, toward the end of re-purifying.
All of this has a robust political angle. If the race-relations content of the wallpaper is perhaps a little on-the-nose, the larger argument the installation makes is about social divisions and the demographics of political access and the pernicious fetishization of purity from Jim Crow through the worst years of the AIDS epidemic, leading up to and during the time when Gober created this work.
The wax legs on view in the MoMA show are almost all those of grown men “dressed” in pants legs, socks and real shoes, and painstakingly covered in human hair, embedded one by one for the verisimilitude. The show includes individual legs ranging from just below the knee to just above, and there are several more complex sculptures of men’s bodies from the waist down. Unlike the single legs, these are manipulated in a more surreal direction with candles “growing” straight up out of the wax legs or wax casts of sink drains displacing the anatomy or sheet music printed across buttocks.
Gober also has been known to make disembodied little girls’ wax legs, which push handily through uncanny and surreal straight to downright creepy. The little girls’ legs, wearing little white leather sandals, only show up in one work in this show, a small untitled installation built into a wall including several of the legs taking the place of logs on a fire in a space that blurs the lines between fireplace and tiny prison cell, with bent prison bars where a fire screen might be.
The legs are curious sculptures, and despite the detailed hyper-reality of the body hair and the readymade clothes, they never do stop looking like wax. This is in much the same way that that the sinks never stop looking like sculptures of sinks, rather than store-bought porcelain. Of course we cannot discount the difference in subject matter. Whereas to what extent the plaster looks like porcelain is an interesting formal or even semiotic concern, the uncanny effect is fairly low stakes. Here, we would cross quickly into outright horror if, instead of uncannily realistic yet obviously waxen legs, they did not look uncanny enough, though still realistic. Horror is not Gober’s aesthetic. Much of the work is definitely unsettling, but the uncanniness plays the vital role of maintaining the works’ ambiguity and keeping the psychology indeterminate.
When you go to MoMA to see the Gober show—which you should—do yourself a favor and see the exquisite Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs. These two exhibitions could not be more radically different from each other, but don’t miss those grand, gorgeous Matisses.