Pictures from an Exhibition

Time to make the doughnuts: Robert Gober's "Bag of Donuts"

Certain artists are known for their particular, enduring images. Monet, for example, painted haystacks and water lilies; Van Gogh did sunflowers; and Degas, ballerinas. But have you ever wondered how artists choose their imagery in the first place? In Walker Art Center's current exhibition, Robert Gober: Sculpture + Drawing, we are given a rare chance to see how an artist conjures up this stuff--how he develops his concepts through time and how ideas follow one another to logical, and wondrous, conclusions.

It's significant that Robert Gober, a New York artist who was educated in Rome and Middlebury, Vermont, has disavowed the use of the word retrospective regarding this show, citing a personal distaste for the term. And in many ways, Robert Gober: Sculpture + Drawing is the opposite of a retrospective. That is, rather than looking backward at an artist's life work, it takes us forward through the creative development of the ideas that Gober continues to employ. The exhibit's success in this endeavor is largely a function of the show's fine curatorial design. Robert Flood, the Walker's chief curator, has carefully placed Gober's works in chronological order so that viewers moving through the Walker's galleries can see how Gober has reused ideas throughout the 20-odd years of his career and how he has modified and advanced them.

For instance, the first painting we see, "Untitled (1978)," is a harbinger of what we will find later in the exhibition. A somewhat mundane and flattened close-up depiction of two hands washing dishes in a typical kitchen setting, the painting exerts an influence on the rest of the show, as we see how Gober becomes preoccupied with increasingly unusual sink imagery. Other critics have spoken about how these sinks reflect the artist's interest in domesticity, metaphoric ritual cleansing, and other, nonfunctional household objects. More noteworthy, perhaps, is how this exhibition elucidates the stages of Gober's work: starting with one visual motif such as sinks, trying out all manner of image variations based on sinks, then taking these later images to begin a new round of experiments. By the mid-1980s, then, his untitled pencil drawings of sinks begin to move away from straightforward imagery, and the shapes, floating like marginal doodles on the cheap paper Gober tends to use, are only barely reminiscent of his original sink circa 1978.

This, in turn, highlights the fact that this show, at its heart, intends to examine the critical method that Gober employs to explore and develop his imagery. As the title of the exhibit indicates, Gober has long used quick pencil drawings to help make his sculptural constructions and installations. By the early 1990s, after endless permutations on paper, the sink forms evolve again and become eerie drainlike objects, metal grates, prison windows, and crib forms. The evolution of these figures culminates in an untitled installation from 1997 that was mounted at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and which is shown in photographs at the Walker. This massive construction employed running water that flowed down a staircase into a grate in the gallery floor, covering a glowing, organic underworld. It has been hailed as a masterwork by many who saw it, but more remarkable is the fact that Gober has been working toward this end result for 20 years. Ultimately, Robert Gober: Sculpture + Drawing reveals the unique mixture of mundane toil and canny inspiration that an artist must employ to create lasting and compelling images.

Minneapolis-based artist Frank Gaard stresses "serendipity" in his art-making processes. That is to say, Gaard places a premium on chance occurrence while designing his paintings, and he includes odd items or sketchy and random touches that strike his fancy at any given moment.

In Frank Gaard: Portraits, on display in the Minnesota Gallery of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, we can see the ways Gaard manipulates the visages of his sitters. Some have textual items glued to the image surface; these are seemingly of personal import to the sitter or the artist. Other faces feature strikingly expressive colors that reveal the artist's emotional state. Still others bear words and phrases whose meaning is rather vague to us. In "Portrait of Dick Brewer (1998)," for example, the subject has an incongruously blue nose in the middle of a neon-pink face and bright orange background. Similarly, "Portrait of Diane Hellickson (1993)," sports stripes of red and green across the model's face.

While we notice these touches immediately, it takes us much longer to decipher the meanings in these personal symbols that Gaard repeatedly includes in the work. Certainly not everything in these portraits is as spontaneous and unstructured as it first appears. As is true with any practiced artist, Gaard brings a wealth of conceptual predilections and stylistic preferences to his work. For years a well-known editor and contributor to the underground graphix collective Artpolice, Gaard produces portraits that include emblematic items in the same manner as comics do--reflecting that medium's tendency to use visual shortcuts in portraying a simplified reality. As with the best comics art of such luminaries as R. Crumb, Art Spiegelman, and even Philip Guston, objects act as visual ideograms; they're not necessarily meant to be read for their aesthetic quality as objects so much as for the range of ideas and concepts they represent.

Often artists also use these metaphors to control the emotional content of their subject matter. Recall, for instance, the cat/mouse motif in Spiegelman's seminal graphic novel, Maus. That Jews are represented as mice and Nazis as cats is a simplification in form as much as it is an evocative visual metaphor. In a similar vein, Gaard's visual metaphors in Artpolice tended much more to the dark side of his psyche. For instance, one recurring character in Gaard's comics had a penis for a nose.

Aside from Gaard's use of emblematic touches, the stylistic influence of comics art in his portraiture is constantly evident in this exhibition. Comics art is the great leveler for the repressed and depressed. It is a quick and easily reproduced way for the average Joe and Jane to express ideas about the world to a seemingly uncaring public. As Gaard has written in his introduction to this exhibition, his current portraits represent the way he thinks about how he relates to other people.

Two early paintings, both untitled, from 1974 and '75 are obsessively covered with tiny ideographic heads reminiscent of both Crumb and Guston. The nearly 100 portraits, meanwhile, are painted in flat primary acrylic colors that recall four-color Sunday newspaper supplements, and the faces are rendered with very little modeling or shading. In fact, they come across almost as caricatures. The looming grid-like patterns they form across the gallery walls can hardly be an accidental curatorial decision: Decades after Roy Lichtenstein hit the scene, the funnies have once again found their way to the museum.


Robert Gober: Sculpture + Drawing runs at the Walker Art Center through May 9; (612) 375-7622. Frank Gaard: Portraits runs at the Minnesota Gallery in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts through April 11; (612) 870-3000.

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