Robert Gober: “Shut up.” “No. You shut up.”
On ViewMatthew Marks
“Shut up.” “No. You shut up.”
November 6 – December 23, 2021
New York, NY
“Shut up.” “No. You shut up.” is a subtly splendid exhibition that thrives on denial and poverty. This new work includes eight wall-hung, open-faced aluminum boxes, 30 inches square by 13 inches deep, each like a window, but not. They contain sections of window apparatus, even a whole sash, but lack sills and jambs; the sides and bottom of the aluminum box stand in for the whole. Windows with a view could have been like the squared portals in a number of signature works by the artist, but he has deliberately reduced his own escape artistry: the back of the box is always plainly evident, so the boxes lead nowhere. They oblige us to confront and study, leaving us no getaway. With choice elements of window sash come patterned curtains, rollup and Venetian blinds, and casually distributed items, mostly incongruent. A window accumulates un-nice stuff over a season, but not a chunk of auto exhaust muffler and tailpipe jutting roomward from the back wall, supporting a bird’s nest with a clutch of eggs.
Rules of this game are: the contents will not be interrupted by the enclosure—they stop neatly short of the sides. Even the drapes, which don’t hang from the top of the box, float just below it. A peculiar brought-up-short feeling comes with that. The boxes might remind one of John F. Peto’s (1854–1907) trompe l’oeil mood boards of pinned and dangling things, for the sake of their deft trickery but also for their understated play of capture and confinement, an activity in which the author does not appear. The unseen sculptor eludes an obvious presence within his work but snares himself inside it. Like the cut-paper snowflakes, taped to the window glass from the inside.
An inspired paucity is the vehicle of the artist’s latest style. Perhaps he no longer needs much from the outside world. Maybe he gave too much already. This recent work requires only a few careworn referents, and the style itself is soberly underplayed. These new pieces might hit harder than ever or just drift blandly over some viewers’ heads. As an artist grows old (just somewhat older, in this case) and speaks more simply and directly than ever, he (Robert Gober) may quite simply not care whether you get it or not. Form is all he needs or wants. He works for himself—one thinks of Jasper Johns … self-occupied, courteous, and indifferent—I’ve made looking and thinking the same thing. Take it or leave it. Not “satisfied?” What has satisfaction got to do with it?
Nevertheless, though they are less spectacular than many of Gober’s signature works and perhaps even more difficult than the others to date, the boxes are easy on the eyes—plainly excellent and willing decoration. Maybe as good as the Minimalist master wallworks they sidelong murmur to, or about.
A good many of Gober’s other works are portals from something quotidian to something extraordinary and better. Not these. Here are weather-beaten windows, cracked glass, peeling paint, drabby hangings, open cans of grease, and punky firewood on offer, inside and out. Remembering Johns again—the boxes are like Valentines, one artist to another—they lead from deadpan scarcity to no more, and no better.
And they frustrate metaphors that practically beg to go to work. They do not make elliptical portraits of the artist, as Peto doors and Cornell boxes routinely do, and they cancel the metaphorical window to the soul, as well. Though each is an evident place, they are not primal scenes of things overheard—Shut up. No. You shut up, for instance. The curtains wafting in, swinging out would suggest a breathing interior, but the blank back wall of the box denies it. The singsong title was only heard inside the artist’s head. Each window is a monologue of the mind in its solitude, not to be disturbed, not caring to make sense, perhaps carelessly gnawing at sense, making trash of memory, and relieving itself of what it knows.
For now, the artist needs so little to conjure with. Soil. Walnut shells (crushed). Boar’s hair. The paper snowflakes. The aforementioned muffler and cans of grease. An open book of paper matches. Translucent adhesive tape. All the contents must be “real” in his usual way—they aren’t, he made them—much as things remembered are: seemingly factual, ostensibly literal but half synthetic. Which half? Top, bottom, inside, out? Studies of eyewitnesses leave us no more than half-confident in the facts we recall. We now know that inside the mind, imagination and prejudice glue the contents to the shelves. And the present finds that glue edible.
The windows were evidently visited, uninvited. In the dim corners, right or left, are the occasional daddy long legs, and on the floor, the fallen scrapings and tailings of gnawing and boring performed out of sight. And the occasional crumpled cigarette butt. Or pencil, designedly dropped. The pencil might suggest the artist, careful planner, maker, teller, and repairman of tales. The derelict butt might read as simply careless but is maybe not so casual. We might think it was deliberately crushed out by someone on someone else’s work, the artist playing both parts.
What if all this depicted matter were real, salvaged windows sawn down to fit, for instance? Why not find a muffler and cut off as much as is needed? It isn’t hard to find recently vacated bird’s nests and appropriate them. What if all these components were not such deliberately-made things? What a let-down that would be. And a pass, permitting us not to feel so much.
Making peeling painted wood, a patterned curtain, a book of matches, as this artist does, is a matter of possession—matter made thought, like a Hopper picture of an old house in Nyack, from the street. Hopper was an artist ridden by the past, who painted to own his subject—make the thing and be less mastered. Gober’s theater has long been a matter of posing and re-posing the prison house of the body. Now the “Shut up” windows narrow his proscenium to a game of only a few pieces, played inside a uniform square. They only barely suggest and frequently deny the corporeality of his previous work. Form overrules representation. The outcome might be freedom, at last.