Robert Gober's works are poignant yet modest, biographical and referential, yet enigmatic and universal. Exquisitely handcrafted, his works are based on mundane objects, yet they incorporate visual twists that frustrate the familiar comfort and emotional certainty that we expect from things like sinks, drains, dresses, shoes, dog beds, piles of newspapers, and even the human form. In fact, comfort, with its attendant sensations of familiarity and safety, is a central theme for Gober and arguably the primary thread that strings together his diverse body of work.
Born in Wallingford, Connecticut in 1954, and reared under the moral veils of both Catholicism and Yankee Puritanism, Gober's vast body of work mirrors the psychological underpinnings of childhood. Indeed, childhood is a point of departure for the artist, who references adult recollections of childhood, seen through the looking glass of memory, as well as lingering subterranean feelings about our complex relationship to ordinary things. Most childhood visual memories, particularly the earliest ones, are consistently ordinary--the blanket one slept with, the light fixture on a ceiling, the pattern of a floor, a beloved pet. Gober manages to brilliantly articulate how these basic memories are imbued with feelings that carry over into adult life. To make art of this, Gober mixes personal memory with visual history, raising the idiosyncratic to a place where it defines a generation's experiences of coming of age. Gober speaks to an audience that sees harmony and contradiction in the world-- how religion can be morally guiding yet socially bankrupt, how love-and-or-lust must be weighed against sickness-unto-death in the age of AIDS. In an era where the popular media provides round-the-clock menu of personal confessions on talk shows, Gober's work conveys deep, non-verbal feelings and echoes of memories that feel sacred and worthy of preservation.
If looked at ontologically, Gober's work can be said to have a goal of finding the line between comfort and uncertainty in the ordinary things that are our anchors. In addition, the artist succeeds in creating a physical, parallel world that exists alongside the real one. "On first encounter, the perceived situation of Gober's work is always ablaze with the signifiers of high Modernism: the pristine rooms, the privative objects, the exquisite craft and refined sense of placement, the subtle evocations of Duchamp and Magritte, Artschwager and Judd. Ultimately, however, all of this nuance and evocation takes on the coppery taste of bitter irony, as Gober (after generations of artists exploring the stuff of their lives in service of this tradition) exploits the stuff of this tradition in the service of his life; further, I think, we might consider Gober's project as evocative of his own generation, exploiting in a radical way, the apparently reduced options left open to it" (D. Hickey, as quoted in Robert Gober, Dia Center for the Arts, 1993, p. 54-55).
Leading a generation of artists in this sensibility, including Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Jim Hodges, Janine Antoni, Zoe Leonard and Tony Feher, Gober understood that the ideologies of art history could be subject to the aesthetic of re-cycling. The physical forms of an idea or an artistic movement, like Minimalism could be broken down and warmed up to embody personal narratives. Many from this group were looking for meaningful ways in which their works could measure the distance between the fragility of what remains and the vastness of what was lost in the age of AIDS. Gobers work is in the conceptual lineage of Marcel Duchamp and Jasper Johns, but contains a powerful, yet understated emotional quality that their work eschews.
Among his peers, Gober is easily regarded as one of the most important artists of his generation. As an artist working primarily in sculpture, he has managed to carry the lofty discourse of the status of the art object to new highs, by insisting that craftsmanship, technical virtuosity and "aura", as well as an informed conceptual rigor, are critical in the making of a powerful object. A truncated torso, a sink formed in a way that denies its function, a dog bed that bares the presence of marked loss, a dress placed on a barren tree in the woods--Gober's works remind us that it is up to the viewer to find their own balance and comfort within this strange, ordinary world.