Robert Gober Looks Into Our Heart of Darkness

I am not alone when I say that Robert Gober’s uncanny works ignite a series of associations that go far beyond the thing that I am looking at. Often, these associations transport me to an impossible place that exists only in the mind or in art, a space of contemplation and reflection on the limits of perception and the inherent constraints of language. Made 20 years ago, “Prison Window” (1992) used the motif of a barred window inset into a wallpapered wall to collapse interior and exterior worlds, the expansive and the severely circumscribed. The wallpaper is printed with a forest of sunlight-dappled trees; two tree trunks that rise from the bottom to the top edge flank the barred window. The tree trunks are in the foreground, the forest in the background. Beyond the bars, in the inset, we see a pale blue-and-pink tinted sky, with no sense of what is beneath it. Where are we when we look at “Prison Window”? What is the prison we are in? What does being free mean to us? How does being free manifest in us? 

These and other questions about location, along with a cluster of unexpected associations, came to mind when I went twice to see the exhibition Robert Gober: “Shut up.” “No. You shut up.” at Matthew Marks Gallery (through January 29, 2022). The window motif is the binder of this exhibition, comprised of 13 drawings and eight wall-mounted sculptures, a wooden pew from a church, a work that joins an early drawing by Gober and a small painting by the American Impressionist painter and furniture maker Robert Henry Logan (1874-1942), a pot of geraniums on a low white pedestal, and fresh bananas that are placed on a corner of the gallery desk every morning. 

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While these associations came to me, and recurred between the time I first saw the exhibition and my return the next day, Gober’s work eventually overtook them and became what I thought about and continue to be haunted by — as I am by his “Untitled (Dog Bed)” (1987), which I wrote about years ago. 

Robert Gober, “Why didn’t I?” (2020–21), copper, wood, soil and crushed walnut shells, epoxy putty, pastel, glass, acrylic and enamel paint, acetate, archival paper, archival tape, 37 1/4 x 37 1/8 x 18 3/4 inches

When I began poring over the eight identically sized, square aluminum boxes, each containing a weather-worn window frame with peeling paint, which Gober meticulously replicates along with everything else in the box, often at a reduced scale, I remembered that Lois Dodd’s great painting, “View through Eliot’s Shack Looking South” (1971), is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, a gift from Gober. 

In that painting, Dodd compresses the reflection on the window of the trees behind her with what is seen through the glass: a window at the other end of the shack, and what is visible through that window. It is the only painting by Dodd, who is 94, in the museum’s collection. Dodd and Gober share an interest in location, the mundane world, time’s ravaging effects, and the conflation of near and far, outside and inside. Has anybody ever done an exhibition centered on the dialogue these two artists are engaged in?

A second association that came to me, although it was after I left the show (and in part motivated my return), was a series of articles by Russ Rymer titled, “Annals of Silence (a Silent Childhood),” about a young woman who spent 13 years of her life strapped to a chair or bed in a closed room, which appeared in The New Yorker in April 1992. Two years later, the articles were incorporated into a detailed, empathetic book, Genie: A Scientific Tragedy (1994). One thing that Rymer focused on was language acquisition and what was learned about her life and imaginative feelings, and investments she made in the things around her, including a shiny yellow raincoat. 

Robert Gober, “Untitled” (2020), graphite on found drawing, 6 7/8 x 8 3/8 inches 

The memory of this article was stirred up by the shadow boxes, which contained the window frame and the other objects that Gober carefully replicated, but I must emphasize that this is not the lens through which I saw the artwork. Rather, Gober’s placement of an untitled drawing on the wall between two facing walls, and the shadow boxes he placed there, is what prompted me to consider a possible connection between the work and the article. On a found drawing, a 19th-century academic study of the bottom of a foot (likely done in an art class), Gober wrote in stencil-like letters the phrase “Human Garbage.” He inverted the drawing, echoing its viewpoint, so that the foot and phrase are upside down. One of the unsettling things about this drawing is that Gober does not provide a context: he offers no anecdote or narrative, which would enable us to maintain an emotional distance from the pairing of a corpse-like section of a bare foot and the phrase, as well as give the viewer a way out of feeling implicated in the work. 

Given Gober’s attention to detail and placement (the boxs’ contents are permanently affixed, even the loose dirt, cigarette butts, and pieces of Styrofoam peanuts), I was struck by the fact that it was mounted in the middle of a long wall. On the facing walls, Gober mounted two more boxes, both titled “Help Me” (2018-21 and 2020-21). While the two works seem at first to mirror each other, that is not the case. The curtains are on the outside of the window in one, while they are behind the window in the other. In both, because the curtains do not hang straight down, it is as if a breeze is blowing. 

Robert Gober, “Help me” (2018–21), pewter, glass, synthetic plastic polymer, epoxy putty, acrylic paint, wood, cotton, epoxy resin, 30 1/4 x 30 3/8 x 18 3/4 inches

Gober’s evocation of a breeze calls attention to the viewer’s presence. Are we outside the window, looking in at the rusted, empty can of farm grease resting on the sill? If the curtains are behind the window, suggesting that we are outside, why is the inset metal lift facing us? It does not face us in the bottom frame, on the opposite wall, where the curtains hang outside the window and seem to blow in. What does it mean to be both outside and inside the space implied by the half-open window? Are we both inside and outside our body or the room? What does the feeling of dislocation signify? Does it refer to the human impulse to compartmentalize when the body is threatened or, to take a cue from Gober’s drawing, treated like garbage? How much do we know about what is going on in the world around us? How much do we want to know? 

In the next gallery space are two pieces both titled “Why didn’t I” (2020-21), installed on opposite walls. Again, the artist has compressed the outside and inside: Venetian blinds are on the “outside” of the window, while the window’s inset latch is on the “inside.” Within the box, resting on the sill, is a rotting section of log, with one tiny green plant rising from one side, evoking death, decay, and rebirth on the broadest level. What are we to make of the smoked cigarette butts and rusted bottle cap visible beneath the log? Are they markers of linear time juxtaposed with the log’s allusion to circular time? We live in both, don’t we? To whom is the works’ shared title addressed? 

Robert Gober, “Untitled” (2020–21), cast gypsum polymer, epoxy putty, epoxy resin, wood, glass, oil and acrylic paint, archival paper, archival tape, 30 1/4 x 30 1/4 x 13 1/2 inches

What about the decal on the windowpane that reads “Police Athletic League”? Why is the glass cracked in one of the works, the fissure running through the decal, and not the other? Why is one facing inward and the other facing outward? What do we think of the police? Do we think about them? Are they just unseen people in uniform, part of the faceless masses meant to make sure society runs smoothly?

This is where we encounter Gober’s genius. In his attention to minute details, he prompts viewers to look closer and to ponder the ordinary, to think about how we live in time and what we see and do not see. The paint is peeling from the cracked window frames. These are houses that have fallen on hard times. If we are on both the outside and inside, what does that say about our relationship to the unseen inhabitants who live behind these windows? Are we any different or better than the “mass of men [who] lead lives of quiet desperation,” to cite Henry David Thoreau’s well-known observation? 

“Waterfall” (2015-16), on its own wall, invites the viewer to go down another rabbit hole. A dark blue jacket the color of a policeman’s uniform faces the wall and seems to be entering it. On the back of the jacket is a small aperture framed in metal. The viewer has to come close to peer inside, which allows you to momentarily forget where you are. We are pulled into an underground world made of rocks piled upon each other, thin branches, light from above, and a steady flow of water running over the rocks. Are we animals living underground? Is this world inside the uniformed person’s body? What is outside? What is inside? Where is the uniform going? Or is it stuck? 

Robert Gober, “Waterfall,” detail (2015–16), wool, cotton, wood, paint on epoxy putty and resin, recycling pumps, lights, water, 115 x 67 x 64 inches

As I l left the gallery, I stopped at certain pieces, to double check my first impressions. Did the vertical log behind the cloth in “Untitled (2020-21) rise above the top edge, where it is prominent, but not continue below the cloth’s bottom edge, which is only a short distance from the bottom edge of the box? Why did Gober leave this absence? What about the cut paper snowflakes, some of which are torn? Who tore these parts off? Why are they taped on the outside of the window and not on the inside? In these works, Gober pulled me into another world, one that was both illuminated by natural light and full of cold shadows. At no point did I feel like I had the answers to these questions. It was not necessarily a comfortable place to be, but it was deeply and profoundly moving. 

Robert Gober: “Shut up.” “No. You shut up.” continues at Matthew Marks Gallery (522 West 22nd Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through January 29.


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