Friday, August 24, 2007

Norman Rockwell, Call Your Office.

The New York Times' Roberta Smith gushes over a Swiss art exhibition in an article that's full of decadence, sophomoric rebellion, meaningless words and phrases, and finally with The Emperor Has No Clothes type of madness. The exhibition and the fawning review (both all too typical of the age) demonstrate as clearly as anything that modern culture has blown its brains out.

In this summer of international art exhibitions in Europe, unanimity among viewers and critics has been rare. But the grand retrospective for the American sculptor Robert Gober at the Schaulager museum here is drawing a chorus of superlatives.

Large and impeccably installed, this exhibition winds through the Schaulager’s vast ground floor and basement galleries as it follows the 30-year development of Mr. Gober’s fraught, gender-bending, body-oriented form of protest sculpture. The survey includes around 60 sculptures and as many drawings, prints and photographs, and also recreates two complex installations, requiring running water. It is amazing to realize that Mr. Gober is only 52...

...One work here consists of a white plastic crate filled with green apples and set on an old wood stool, with a melted Winchester rifle draped across its top like the body of Christ in a Wild West Pietà. Another is a recent version of his mute, fixtureless sinks, this one suggesting Huckleberry Finn filtered through Magritte: its backsplash morphs into a worn white fence, and a robin’s nest with three blue eggs sits in the basin.

Mr. Gober stands at the forefront of a generation that emerged in the 1980s and devised new ways to fuse the personal and the political, the accessible and the mysterious. His art is a sometimes subtle, sometimes furious protest against what might be called delusions of normalcy; the sexual, racial and religious prejudices these delusions engender are examined at their point of origin, the childhood home....

...His art includes things as seemingly innocuous as hand-laminated sheets of plywood, as monstrous as a hand-painted cereal box 80 inches tall and as quietly incendiary as wallpaper whose patterns alternate images of a lynched black man and a sleeping white man. A recent hybrid is a sink with horrifically stretched wax children’s legs looping through the drain and faucet holes: a child deformed by the parental need for purity.

Other symbols of repressive cleanliness include bags of cat litter and rat poison in painted plaster, and cast bronze or pewter sink drains, sewer drains and culverts. A huge culvert penetrates the abdomen of a nearly life-size concrete Madonna that was in his controversial installation unveiled at the Los Angeles County Museum of Contemporary Art in 1997. This work, which also has a wood staircase cascading with water, Depression-era suitcases and a subterranean grotto, is now owned by the Schaulager and on permanent view here. It is a masterpiece.

Forms and motifs ricochet through the show. In one gallery, bags of cat litter lean against walls covered with the hanging man/sleeping man wallpaper, while at the center stands a sparkling satin wedding gown, redolent of purity, that Mr. Gober wears in an image in another work.

More is better with Mr. Gober’s art; quantity conveys the fullness of the language he has invented. This is further elaborated here in a gallery containing a reduced version of “The Meat Wagon,” an exhibition that Mr. Gober assembled in 2005 at the Menil Collection in Houston.

Here, as in Houston, he has mixed his own works with art from the Menil. The installation centers on a rather macabre but cozy little fireplace that holds children’s legs instead of logs and has bent prison bars instead of a fire screen. Grouped around it are a painting of a rifle by Magritte, a 16th-century iron ax, some drawings of severed limbs by Delacroix and a curvaceous evening coat in black satin lined with red by Charles James, the wedding gown turned wicked and aware. There is also a crude wax head of Abraham Lincoln and a worn potholder embroidered with the words “Any Holder but a Slave Holder.”

With this gallery Mr. Gober lays out some of the issues, affinities and troubled histories that fuel his art. It is yet another way that the astounding Schaulager exhibition clarifies how he unlocks the mysteries of the human heart.