No Place Like Home

John Haber
in New York City

Robert Gober and Roxy Paine

There's no place like home, not even MoMA. Yes, it sounds almost like Mom. And yes, it has cribs, easy chairs, kitchen sinks, a wood-burning fireplace, and a perfectly made bed. It papers a room with autumn foliage, for that cabin in the woods of your memories or your dreams.

This museum, however, is not for sleeping. It is also not drawing on its design collection—not when water or sewer pipes run right through a crib and an easy chair, sinks lack drains, and firewood has the shape and color of human bones. Rather, the display belongs to Robert Gober, for whom dreams blend into nightmares and everyday existence into the fabric of a dream. For him the simplest of objects become obsessions. Their banality can be as more oppressive than the nightmares, but his very obsessions help rescue a retrospective for art. They also become a picture of crises in contemporary America. Robert Gober's Untitled Leg (Museum of Modern Art, 1989–1990)

Roxy Paine, too, carefully reconstructs the objects of his fears. Maybe you find airport scanners a little too intrusive. Paine's vision of airport security will not leave a record of you naked, but neither will it allow you to take flight. It may leave you wondering if the state has become too intrusive or simply too dysfunctional—and maybe the same for art. Paine means it that way, too, as he sets aside his more environmentally aware installations and the blunt unreality of steel trees. Like Gober, he turns out to have a talent for illusion.

Down the drain

A museum is definitely not for sleeping, not even for members. (Try to forget that MoMA's 2004 renovation served the interests of luxury condos towering above, and its destruction of the former Museum of American Folk Art for a further expansion promises much the same.) Robert Gober thrives there for that very reason. The single bed's perfection accords with the stark geometry of a museum's white box, its bedding straight down to either side, in the shadow of a tall window to its side. Nothing exactly denies its function, although it does not take a guard to warn one not to touch. If the artist remembers this item from his Connecticut childhood, no one ever came to tuck him in.

He thrives on a retrospective's scope as well. You can exit fairly quickly because of its numbing repetition, but then the numbness will haunt you for days. Maybe MoMA has at last found use for its oversized museum atrium, reduced to the exposed back of a partition, for he pushes beyond the galleries for contemporary art to fill it. His single-mindedness appears in the very first room, devoted to his breakthrough work of 1984, those white plaster sinks. This is about excess—and I do not mean everything but the kitchen sink. This really is no place like home.

It is also about lacking, just as the bed lacks for comfort. Gober modeled one sink after a remembered bathroom, but most have the clumsy, impersonal design of basements and laundries. Nothing stands in the way of their whiteness. Their familiar outlines fall between Pop Art and Minimalism, as indeed did Gober at the time. They also lack hardware and any conceivable purpose. All the perfumes of Arabia will not erase the stench and stains they leave behind.

For a time, this artist was everywhere, if only on the edges. Anyone who lived through years of irony, appropriation, and the "Pictures generation" will have seen his bathroom fixtures regularly in museums and group shows. If not them, one could spot a crib or a man's lower leg on the floor coming out of a wall. Truth be told, I could never see them as brutally cut off, rather than arbitrary gallery additions. They felt as affectless and ubiquitous as the colored planks leaning against the wall shortly before by John McCracken. Gober in fact leans some wood veneer of his own, on the wall next to the bed.

For me, the MoMA retrospective is a game changer, starting with its unnerving repetition. (Fans of California's "Light and Space" movement would say the same about McCracken in quantity.) It also helps in understanding the roots of Gober's obsessions. The entryway has a survey in miniature with a crib, a leg, a study for a slip-covered armchair, a can of paint, a hand-torn ad for cat sitting, and a small painting of home from 1975, its domesticity tempered by crossing shadows. Later he compiled a slide show of his early paintings, to point out that he had already found his themes of house and home. The entry also holds a closet door.

No one can enter, just as Gober, born in 1954, can no longer return home, but then no one can exit through it either. He found himself as a gay male when it was not so easy to come out of the closet. He also found himself in a time of AIDS. Those thick pipes could once have carried muddy water and tarnished reputations. Partially buried, with holes in place of faucets, the sinks become tombstones and empty masks. Recovered and affixed to two more legs, their hardware suggest AIDS-related Kaposi's sarcoma in both its shapes and the very notion of drainage.

Obsession and illusion

For all its emotional engagement, much as with household furniture for Joseph Zito, work like this can be haunting but also awfully literal, which is to say predictable in its allusions. MoMA subtitles the retrospective "The Heart Is Not a Metaphor," an odd choice for work so packed with metaphors and illusions. (Specialists may prefer synecdoche or metonymy, for images so closely related to what they express—like indeed the heart.) I hate to criticize an artist who in reviews to date is, um, walking on water. But surely no one has emerged from an actual closet except to change clothing. The metaphors are telling all the same.

What rescues Gober from cheap sentiment is the strength of his obsessions. Soon sinks multiply, flatten, and turn away from the familiar, like The Sink Inside of Me. This is not the block home furniture of Richard Artschwager twenty years before, in all Artschwager's furious detachment. By the show's end, water has begun to flow right into a pothole in the museum floor. The cribs, too, take more menacing shape, like the one tilted as if distorted by human perspective alone. Legs round out the imagery starting in 1989, but then a candle had already sprouted coarse, black human hair.

He redeems his obsessions once more with a guilty or knowing glance. Wallpaper is a metaphor for bad art, and he must know it. It requires a repeated pattern and mechanical reproduction as well, as a proper Marxist would demand. In Gober's hands, it is also a domestic environment, filled with rat bait and kitty litter. Does that get a little too obvious, as with wallpaper of a lynched black alternating with a sleeping white? How did this artist stumble from white sinks to questions of black America anyway?

It helps that Gober takes objects so seriously that his craft becomes an obsession of its own. His care for detail makes it all the more telling that his legs sport actual human hair. He may not have had a future as a painter, but he is a gifted draftsman and thorough in his sculptural illusion. He fashioned that dented paint can in 2005 from lead and aluminum leaf, dripping with excess white. He litters darkened rooms with bundled newspapers, each pile hand-made. They lead to another room, with high barred windows, in both a literal and metaphoric dead end.

The curators, Ann Temkin and Paulina Pobocha, include an aside for Gober as curator of others, as at the 2012 Whitney Biennial. For Cady Noland in that room, Gober's sink has become stocks out of Puritan New England. Noland is on to something—if not Gober's Catholicism, surely his struggle with religion. By the end, water does flow, but the sinks are filthier, a model of a remembered church is crumbling, and both have taken on associations with yet another calamity. The retrospective ends with a room set out like a church in response to 9/11. Another full room recreates an installation from 2005.

Above an imagined high altar, water runs from the nipples of a crucifixion. To either side of a central aisle, pews hold fruit and remnants of disaster. Once again, still life becomes metaphor. Is this the same artist I have so often found innocuous and predictable? Was he all along just one more Catholic schoolboy acting out his devotion and dissent, like Andre Serrano with piss Christ or Chris Ofili with his Madonna of the elephant turds? Maybe so, but his retrospective recovers thirty years caught up movingly in events and shared obsessions.

Security risks

Roxy Paine has long treasured the unruliness of life, even as he recreates it in polished wood and steel. His steel tree planted in Central Park, for the 2002 Whitney Biennial, joined New York's most gracious meeting of humanity and nature, while warning of the growing threat of one to the other. A construction in 2009 extended Central Park to the roof of the Met, but could it return to nature what arts institutions had wrested away? One climbed through it as in a playground, but with nowhere to emerge but in contemporary art. Roxy Paine's Conjoined (James Cohan Gallery, 2007)In between, in 2007, two steel trees bent toward one another in Madison Square Park while never quite touching, another gesture at once natural, human, and unyielding. Now he takes up wood itself, with maple's lightness, art's hard edges, and a reminder of everything they exclude.

For one thing, they exclude people. Checkpoint stands motionless and apart from gallery traffic, within its own maple box. Converging walls pick up the diorama's heightened perspective. One may have to reach out to confirm that it has no glass wall in front, despite grooves to contain one. Everything looks complete, down to the single maple sneaker in one of the baskets, and everything feels just as unreal. Is an actual security checkpoint ever without a long line?

The rest of the show picks up the themes of puzzlement and authority, with titles like Machine of Indeterminacy and Scrutiny. The first is half engine block and half photocopier, its interior rotors about to shred the resulting documents or you. The multiple video cameras of the second would amount to overkill, even were they not scrutinizing nothing but themselves. Maybe the final work, a simulated chain saw, has already rendered them superfluous. You may still feel obliged to empty your pockets of loose metal. If you are a collector, the dealer sure hopes so.

An all-seeing eye goes back to the heyday of, you know, theory—most notably to Michel Foucault and his metaphor of a panopticon, or prison centered around an observant authority. Been there, done that. Paine's insistent illusion evokes other threats as well, much as still more French theory reduced modern life to its "simulacra." Is he seeing through the illusion, or does he see nothing beyond the observer? The exhibition title, "Denuded Lens," might imply either one. Theory aside, this is art, in which illusion comports with beauty.

Is it also a little too much fun? Without its centerpiece, the chain saw would offer little more than the mock realism of Thomas Friedman's Styrofoam acoustic guitar. Its hybrid machine's might make little sense at all. Yet they challenge every public space that bears down on private needs. Paine leaves one wondering if anything lies unspoiled by human hands. Not even dysfunction offers an escape.

Paine has worked within a gallery before, on a pretend machine for making art and an artificial terrarium. He might seem now to have abandoned threats to planet earth or the whole idea of the "machine in the garden." Yet he still holds out the promise of a wider and wilder world. Who knows what lies beyond the checkpoint, in the twists and turns of airport corridors? The diorama trails off into an unseen private space, behind closed doors, unlike any departure gate I can name. Perhaps it is for frequent fliers like you.

BACK to John's arts home page

Robert Gober ran at The Museum of Modern Art through January 18, 2015, Roxy Paine at Marianne Boesky through October 18, 2014. Related reviews look at Paine's 2007 and 2009 outdoor sculpture in the city's parks.


Browse or Search by artist or critic Browse by period in art's histories Browse by postmodern ideas Check out what's NEW Some of my own favorites Museums, galleries, and other resources online Who is Haberarts? Return HOME