(THIS ESSAY WILL PRECEDE THE THREE GOBER LOTS) Robert Gober is among the most important American artists to have emerged during the last twenty years. Mixing the commonplace with the symbolic, he creates profoundly original works that resonate with memory and emotion, trauma and desire. His sculptures are powerful, disturbing, and loaded with suggested meaning. And like all true relics, his sculptures retain and give off an aura that confronts the viewer directly.
Leg with Candle is characteristic of Gober's genius. In a manner reminiscent of the Surrealists, Gober has reconfigured the universe, uniting separate categories of being; leg and candle, flesh and wax, nature and culture, creator and created have been joined and merged. The sculpture is nightmarish and grotesque. Indeed, this kind of ontic blending is the essence of grotesque art (think of third-style Roman wall painting and Gothic decoration). Moreover, candles are objects with clear and powerful symbolic meanings, all of which seem relevant here. The Surrealists, particularly Magritte and Mir, viewed candles as a talisman or instrument of magic. Candles also are a common vanitas symbol of the transience of mortal existence (e.g, "out, out brief candle"). In addition, they are ritual items, associated especially with funerals and votive altars. And since remotest antiquity, wax sculptures of body parts have been tokens of thanksgiving at votive altars. Naturalism in western art has its roots in magic and religion, not in secular science, and Gober's piece recovers some of the primordial mystery of the simulacrum.
Crib is another work that mixes the personal and the sacred. It is the first in Gober's crib series, and it is entirely handmade by the artist. While later in the series, Gober transformed and altered the cribs, the present work is a literal reproduction of a standard crib. Nevertheless, it is a powerful and haunting sculpture. Crib is the Primal Site, the symbolic scene of initial contact and conflict between infant and family, individual and society. For Gober, a homosexual raised in a working class Catholic family, this was conflict was often very painful. Indeed, another of his works pairs news-stories of child-abuse and infanticide with stereotypical images of the "ideal" heterosexual family.
According to Mircea Eliade, a sacred space is a realm of symbolic meaning; and the space must be fenced off from the chaos of the profane by a clear physical boundary. (In ancient Roman temple-precincts, the boundary was called "fanum," hence the word pro-fane.) The bars of Crib suggest imprisonment, and also demarcate a zone of profoundly charged personal and symbolic meanings. Gober has said, "Most of my sculptures have been memories remade, recombined and filtered through my current experiences." This seems to be especially true of Crib.
Cat Litter is one of Gober's handmade ready-mades. The artist originally exhibited it as part of an ensemble at the Paula Cooper Gallery that included Wedding Gown, and Hanging Man/Sleeping Man wallpaper. In an interview with Robert Flood, Gober said, "The Cat Litter I never saw as being that far a step from Wedding Gown . . . the cat litter was to a large degree a metaphor for a couple's intimacy--that when you make a commitment to an intimate relationship, that involves taking care of that other person's body in sickness and in health. If I had chosen to do a box of diapers, which is an equivalent of a bag of cat litter, it would have been obvious. But because I was juxtaposing a low symbol with a high symbol and a deflated symbol with an inflated one, people had a very hard time reconciling the two" (quoted in Serpentine Gallery London and Tate Gallery Liverpool, Robert Gober, London, 1993, p. 10).
Gober has said that he chooses and forms his subjects by "nursing an image that haunts me and letting it sit and breed in my mind; and then, if it's resonant, then I'll try to figure out formally, could this be an interesting sculpture" (ibid., p. 17). All three of these sculptures are haunting and resonant works and they exemplify the genius of Robert Gober