Robert Gober’s work, fusing the innocuous and the ominous, is as unsettling as it is illusionistic—from the human hairs between the pant-cuff and sock of a beeswax man’s leg to the disembodied limb itself, protruding from a wall. “The Heart Is Not a Metaphor” spans 40 years of Gober’s enigmatic work, and includes around 130 pieces. Here are handcrafted sinks and cribs, the yearlong project Slides of a Changing Painting (1982–83), and re-created installations, such as his stunning forest with prison windows.
The show opens with a playpen apparently impaled by two bronze drainage pipes, plus an early painting of the Connecticut house in which Gober grew up. An empty closet follows. This gay Roman Catholic artist re-creates a deliberately careless paint job, with bleeding knotholes and marks from an absent closet rod. “Metaphors are almost embedded in the medium,” Gober has warned.
And there are historical links. Gober’s sinks from the mid-’80s, which have no drains, relate to the early years of the AIDs epidemic. His 1989 hand-printed wallpaper installation (alternating a sleeping white man and a lynched black man), with bags of kitty litter and a satin wedding gown, refers to equality denied. His genitalia wallpaper with displaced drains in the walls expresses an American unease with sexuality. The psychosexual metaphors include cleanliness and filth, slavery and baptism, violence and family secrets.
Duchampian surprises are also in evidence—under the floor, out a window, in a fireplace. Glimpsed through a gutter drain in a large suitcase, a tidal pool hides the legs of a man and a baby. Gober’s 9/11 memorial piece includes photo-lithographed pages of the September 12, 2001, New York Times and a headless crucified Christ out of whose nipples water flows into a jackhammered hole in the floor.
In all, it’s a fascinating glimpse of Gober’s thought processes, craftsmanship, and materials—attuned not only to Minimalism and Surrealism, but to the still-unmentionable style: Super-Realism.
A version of this story originally appeared in the December 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 108.