Robert Gober at Matthew Marks Gallery

Installation of Robert Gober’s art at Matthew Marks Gallery; courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery

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I did ultimately make it to Robert Gober’s installation at the Matthew Marks Gallery. It has to be seen to be believed–but can it be understood? A Robert Gober Lexicon, two volumes published in conjunction with the current exhibition and available for 40 bucks at the front desk, looks to be the Rosetta stone for everything Goberesque.

Flipping through the pages, I noted references to Greek mythology, avowals of handicraft and photographs of paintings by Grünewald and Salvador Dali, and a section on the Elgin Marbles. Is it possible to comprehend Mr. Gober’s work without a user’s manual? Sex and death are a constant in the mix, yet with an artist as famously cryptic as this one, you need all the help you can get.

Strolling around the exquisitely arranged provocations at Marks–to name three: prints of the Sept. 12, 2001 edition of The New York Times printed both backwards and forwards; two waxy sets of legs ensconced in tubs threatening to overflow; and a sculpture of the crucifixion featuring a headless Christ with water streaming from his nipples–I felt, at last, that I had come to know Mr. Gober. He is a man of profound feeling and rare intellectual scope, a visionary troubled to the depths of his soul by the awful–just awful!–march of history.

That’s what Mr. Gober would like us to believe. The truth is more mundane. The clammy neo-Dadaist mementos–did I mention the package of diapers displayed as if it were the Shroud of Turin?–are testimony to the revelations of a man who doesn’t much venture outside the sticky confines of his psyche. Did you know that 9/11 was a significant and terrible event? Or that the 2004 Presidential election was, like, a big deal?

That Mr. Gober came to these realizations is a healthy sign–recognition of the outside world being a firm first baby step away from the strictures of self. All the same, it doesn’t mean that the work gains in authority or that he’s a changed man. If anything, it proves that art predicated on nihilism and narcissism is inherently ill equipped to illuminate world events. Mr. Gober can point, point, point to 9/11. What he can’t do is convince us that it’s anything more than a prop for his obsessions. That’s the trouble with fetishists: They engage in experience only if it is funneled through the prerogatives of an intensely private need.

If you’re inclined to meet Mr. Gober on his own icky patch of turf, you might find his 9/11 memorial, with its attendant digs at the Republican Party, a major and perhaps even moving piece of art. If you think art is a matter of expanding, redefining and deepening the turf, you’ll puzzle over Mr. Gober’s major rep. If you’re outraged that someone should exploit history to satisfy his own ugly compulsions, you’ll ask Mr. Gober to please keep it to himself.

(c) 2005 Mario Naves

Originally published in the April 24, 2005 edition of The New York Observer.

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