Death, sexuality, domesticity, childhood, Life. These are the themes artist Robert Gober has explored since his emergence in the New York art scene in the 1980’s, a decade known for decadence as much as for death and disease, the AIDS epidemic. As an antidote to these issues, the openly gay Gober created hand-made, non-fabricated objects that addressed the confusing connection between the activity of sex and the act of dying. Now, more than twenty years later, the artist uses his own body of work as a source for appropriation, recycling central imagery such as faucets, rifles, apples, bird nests, and isolated body parts to continue a discussion of facing life and sexuality in the face of death.
Following a large-scale solo exhibition at Matthew Marks in 2005 focused on religion and politics, Gober presents a more intimate and personal show at Marks’ two smaller galleries on West 21st and 22nd Street. Each gallery presents untitled sculptures of a partially dismantled chair mounted on the wall, with large breasts protruding outward from the seat and various other Goberian elements included.
One of the cast gypsum polymer chairs has the surreally rendered legs of a female child wrapped flaccidly around its rungs, dark human hair accenting the pale flesh on each limb. The treatment of the seemingly lifeless legs have a violent yet playful quality, provoking thoughts of either a crime scene or a jungle gym on a playground. The stark contrast between innocence and the loss thereof provides an eerie and thought provoking element that continues in surrounding works in the exhibition.
Another of the breasted-chair sculptures features a handcrafted rifle entering the empty space between the legs of the chair and curving (flaccidly, again) around the front so that the barrel is pointed directly between the two breasts. The curvature morphs the gun from threatening and phallic into a faucet-like object, thus emphasizing the non-functionality of both the gun and the faucet.
Of the more gentle pieces present is a chair without any presentation of violence, but of life and birth instead. The tiny, blue eggs of a robin sit in a nest that rests inside the framework of the chair, appearing as though it is delicately balanced on top of the rungs. This piece could address the struggle in becoming a woman, whether it is letting go of childlike qualities or becoming a mother, or simply the act of creation amidst life’s injustices.
Superficially, Gober’s sculptures can seem violent and misogynistic. It would be easy to dismiss Gober as a woman-loathing male due to the violent undercurrents of his representations of women, but within these pieces there also exists a tenderness, and a sense of personal struggle. Deeper investigations need to be forged in order to understand the artist’s use of gender, sexuality, and his allusions to death or violence.
The exhibition at Marks has neither a title nor a press release, even though there are a plethora of essential details in the body of work that necessitate explanation. Luckily, a surprisingly friendly gallery assistant, Jonathan, informed me that the chair featured in the show is a replica of the first piece of furniture that Gober purchased when he arrived in New York City. This little bit of information is instrumental in interpreting the rich iconography present in the sculptures, which are full of possibilities for a Freudian analysis. Sans press release, interesting details about the show such as this or that the frames surrounding small linoleum block prints are handcrafted in apple wood (the same wood as the butt of the rifle), are lost without a thorough interrogation of the gallery staff or an insider’s knowledge of the artist’s work.
After learning about the history of the chairs, a more personal interpretation of the exhibition comes into focus. Being as that the chairs represent the artist’s entrance into the New York art world, one can conclude that when combined with the incorporated symbolism they represent both the birth of his life as an artist, and the death of a child-like naiveté.
Another tidbit I received from my long conversation with Jonathan was that the artist brought his mother and his sister to the gallery the day before to revisit his pieces during an afternoon outing, and that he has a close relationship with them both. This information led me to reevaluate my Freudian analyses and conclude that Gober’s sculptures are based more on an analysis of his own experiences than a meditation on gender specifically.
The artist’s entrance into the New York art world in the 1980’s inevitably included a loss of innocence tied to harsh realities, such as the discovery of the AIDS virus and his position as a gay male in the scheme of these issues. By reusing his own arsenal of images related to death, sexuality, childhood, and rebirth, Gober continues on a path of self-discovery that is directly linked to larger and complex societal concerns.