Robert Gober: Troubling the Banal

'Distorted Playpen,' 1986.

The art of Robert Gober represents an immensely important body of work for testing the scope of contemporary art’s interrogation of kitsch. With his unique method, the unusual character of his work and the resultant effect that it has, Gober problematizes the discrete categories of high art and kitsch by troubling the banality of everyday life in provocative ways and to subversive ends.

Handmade Readymades’

Gober gained significant exposure in the late 1980s and 90s amid a revived interest in realism and illusionism among contemporary artists. Gober and other artists of his generation utilized an appropriation strategy borrowed from Andy Warhol and pop art to destabilize our perception of everyday items and at the same time let loose new questions for the identity politics of the time. Gober’s appropriations include doors, drains, sinks, pipes, grates, cribs, newspapers, and various pieces of debris collected from the city street or washed up on the shore near his Long Island home. These found objects are then replicated into meticulously crafted editions, what some refer to as ‘handmade readymades.’ Despite the perceptual similarity between his works and the everyday objects that inspire them, the artist’s creations reveal slight and often subtle differences in size, shape or function. Many involve drastic and shocking mutations; sometimes terrifying in their abject solitude. Unlike Jeff Koons, who eventually made kitsch the center of his artistic practice, Gober used his ‘handmade readymade’ to delve further into the psyche of what Richard Flood calls ‘the American Gothic undertow.’ 

Is Anybody Home?

Tracing ‘the American Gothic undertow,’ Flood makes the apt comparison between Alfred Hitchcock’s use of the mid-20th century banal for his visual palette and the distinct aesthetic in Gober’s drawings, sculptures, and installations. More than an arbitrary or strictly conceptual choice, Gober has elected to evoke the time period of his own childhood; as one critic perceptively notes, ‘the last moment in America before plastic was a common manufacturing material.’ Additionally, his choices in appropriation evoke further reaction in that they must fit the category of what the artist describes as ‘objects you complete with your body.’ It is as if the ominous spaces populated by Gober’s haunting relics ask: ‘Is anybody home?’ With an almost palpable loneliness surrounding them, Gober’s objects not only recall ghostly associations with things from the past but also make possible profound psychological encounters with the real.

Troubling the Banal

In his seminal essay ‘The Return of the Real’, Hal Foster explores the hidden aims within the broad, revived interest in realism and illusionism that characterizes Gober’s generation of artists. Alongside his discussion of ‘traumatic realism’ and ‘traumatic illusionism,’ Foster elaborates on the appropriation and explains that ‘appropriation art works to expose the illusions of representation, it can poke through the image-screen.’ Reflecting further on Gober and artists like him, Foster notes that ‘Here illusionism is employed not to cover up the real with simulacral surfaces but to uncover it in uncanny things.’ While the sheer accumulation of everyday objects rendered illusionary or abject by Gober’s practice would serve to arrest any viewer, it is his profound construction of quasi-religious and ominously spiritual spaces that represents his greatest effort at troubling the banality of our lives. Gober’s most remarkable spaces have involved the studied and precise transformation of near kitsch-y religious objects.

 

In September 1997, Robert Gober displayed his untitled, site-specific installation in the Geffen Contemporary gallery of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Somewhere between a serenely empty home space and a calm chapel, the installation has at its center a sculpted Madonna pierced through with a culvert pipe. Loosely based on an almost kitsch-y garden sculpture of Mary and adapted with help from a live model, Gober crafted this Madonna with his own hands, and in the eerie space of the installation it retains none of its garden store familiarity.

Gober appropriated another piece of religious kitsch for a large-scale installation at the Matthew Marks gallery in New York City, which he described thus: ‘The exhibition, its contents, its themes, and its materials were in some deep way related to the events on September 11, 2001.’ The headless cement crucifix remains the pseudo-chapel’s focal point and encapsulates the grief-stricken mood of the space. Based on a family heirloom handed down to the artist by his grandmother, the crucifix assumes a strange scale, not a monument and yet not a miniature. Like the Madonna before it, Gober took great care in sculpting the crucifix himself and in his way has ensured its solemn presence and spiritual portent.

Each stands as a startling example of the effects of Gober’s appropriation strategy – distorting the kitsch appeal of such thinly religious things by making them strange to our eyes once more.

 

Dr. Taylor Worley is Assistant Professor of Christian Thought and Tradition and Associate Dean for Spiritual Life at Union University.

 

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