Born 1954, Wallingford, Connecticut
The work of Robert Gober frequently mines ordinary images and objects for their associations with larger social and political contexts, transforming them into distorted and even surreal markers of everyday experience. Through his eerie treatment of familiar objects—like body parts, sinks and cribs, a silk wedding dress, and patterned wallpaper—Gober evokes what feel like buried memories, creating scenes of domestic rituals gone awry. These works investigate the complicated and often subliminal ways in which cultural identity can be conveyed through objects. Gober is skilled at bringing together the apparently irreconcilable; it is not uncommon for one of his works to be described simultaneously as funny, perverse, haunting, confounding, and sad. Indeed, as soon as a comprehensive understanding of a piece seems within reach, some contradictory angle elbows in to destabilize it again.
Gober’s series Newspaper (1992–96) consists of stacks of bundled newspapers tied with twine, seemingly destined for recycling. In one work from this series, a bridal advertisement features Gober himself as the bride, outfitted in white gown and veil, under the headline “Vatican Condones Discrimination Against Homosexuals.”1 Beyond the overt playfulness of his drag masquerade, this image—of a man’s face on a buxom woman’s gowned body—raises deeper questions of sexual and queer politics, amounting to a touching appeal for the legalization of gay marriage. The appropriation of newspaper pages to delve into issues of discrimination, fear, and violence remains central in Gober’s series September 12 (2005–9), for which he made lithographic replicas of pages from the September 12, 2001, issue of the New York Times, featuring now-iconic images and articles about the 9/11 attacks, and then superimposed pastel and graphite drawings of coupled figures over the disturbing images and headlines. The bodies are peach-colored and sumptuous and their positioning intimate: a back with two arms wrapped around it, interwoven feet and calves, a leg draped over a reclining torso. Hands are placed lightly; limbs are unclenched. The drawings are truncated, and there are no sharp edges where they end, so the figures appear to be vanishing or slipping away, as if potentially traumatized or partly numb. In some ways, the pastel figures seem “timeless,” as they lack distinctive traits such as facial features, hair, moles, freckles, or imperfections. This makes the chosen ground or site of the newspaper—arguably irreducible for its subject matter—stand out in contrast. The intimacy and tenderness of Gober’s drawings are at odds with the horrific violence of the planes crashing into the World Trade Center, yet the subject matter of both the drawings and newspaper pages shares a pronounced physicality, a view into the vulnerability of the human body. This could be read as a plaintive query about how pleasure can exist simultaneously with such egregious cruelty. But the sensitivity of the rendering of the bodies might also be understood as an indictment of brutality, suggesting that human interaction—love and pleasure—can still exist in the wake of destruction and hatred, and indeed remain the most compelling argument for nonviolence. That pleasure endures makes the unbearable a little less so, at least temporarily. There is nonetheless an unsettling quality to the juxtaposition—perhaps it is the suggestion that the gratification one gleans from reading the news might not be altogether divorced from the comforts of a bodily embrace or that the voyeuristic consumption of horrible tragedy and the act of sex are both integral parts of many people’s routines and that each might be enacted mechanically, without shock or disruption.
Uneasy juxtapositions are also the crux of Gober’s Hanging Man / Sleeping Man (1989) wallpaper, which is made up of a pattern of a two-part illustration: a black man hanging, lynched, from a tree branch, and a white man soundly asleep beneath the covers. From afar, the repetition takes the imagery out of the particular and into the realm of decoration, a pattern placed on the surface of a domestic space. But a closer vantage reveals that the images are particular and very disturbing. That the white man appears to sleep peacefully in close proximity to heinous violence underscores the central role race plays in providing (or denying) a sense of security and safety in American life. In certain configurations, he seems even to be dreaming of the image of the hanged black man. The wallpaper reworks the history of dispossession on which America is built into domestic decoration. Given that institutionalized violence and racism remain pervasive today, the wallpaper also seems accusatory: is it not we who sleep on?