Robert Gober: The Meat Wagon
The Menil Collection
Invited by chief curator Matthew Drutt to rummage through the Menil Collection's ecumenical holdings, Robert Gober came up with The Meat Wagonat once a memento mori and a transcendent vision. The exhibition was installed in four galleries of varying size, each painted a color that corresponds with rooms in John and Dominique de Menil's home. Correspondence, in many forms, was key to plumbing the mysteries of this installation, which combined works by Gober with carefully selected art and artifacts from the Collection. There was also a suggestion of a spiritual journey in Meat Wagon, though such a reading might be better understood as a narrative strategy than explicit in the installation.
One entered the installation through a large, blue gallery filled with objects and images redolent of vulnerability and threat: an eighteenth century BCE Egyptian funerary mask; a negated Degas self-portrait etching (X marks the spot); twelve drawings from a suite of fifty-four by Charles Howard, each created and sent to a gravely ill friend on every day of his confinement; an oil-on-wood panel of Two Beggars by François Xavier Vispre framed behind broken glass; and three works of Gober's, meticulously constructed anti-readymades: Rat Bait, Untitled (1984), one of his faucetless and drainless sinks that promiseand denythe possibility of cleansing, and Untitled (2000 2001), a pint of Seagram's gin.
Robert Gober, Untitled, 1992
Five sculptures, each: Photolitography on Mohawk Superfine paper and twine with supporting bundles
Each: 18 x 29 1/2 x 32 inches, Overall approximately: 90 x 93 x 64 inches
Collection of the artist
Opposite the entrance, Gober's Untitled piece from the early 1990schildren's legs piled in a fireplace formed by a fake, revolving hearth and a prison window whose bent middle bars offer either escape or entranceformed an altar for a cross comprised of an eighteenth century crucifix surmounted by an oxen yoke. This ersatz altar was flanked on its right by a sixteenth century axe and on the left by a wax bust of Abraham Lincoln. Following the axe, one entered a claustrophobic, yellow gallery dominated by Luciano Fontana's Spatial Concept/Waiting, a rose monochrome, vertical slash painting that resonated with the violence of the crucifixion in the first gallery. This and a Charles James ball gown faced Gober's Untitled (Closet) from 1989 forming a shallow simulacrum of parenthetical terms.
The Fontana and a Mondrian study from the early forties hinted at the possibility of transcendence, but the room itself presented a dead end. Again, correspondence is key to the valence of Gober's endeavor, not just in terms of the proximity of his juxtapositions but throughout the entire exhibit. A wooden arm from late twenty-fifth century BCE Egypt harkens back to both the legs in Gober's fireplace-altar as well as to four drawings by Eugène Delacroixanatomical studies of disembodied armsin the first gallery and summoned uncomfortable sociopolitical associations with the aforementioned axe. Returning toand traversing the large gallerythe wax bust of Lincoln (wax being one of Gober's signature materials) directed viewers to a light violet gallery of middling size, where they find themselves politically engaged in Michelangelo Pistoletto's mirror painting Vietnam, willingly or not. Nearby, another Charles James creationan evening coat of black satin, its hem turned back to show a blood-red liningseemed to gaze at the tantalizing blue sky of Gober's Untitled (Prison Window) from 1992, which recalled his fireplace piece by refusing access to the empyrean.
This gallery led to the inner sanctum past a vitrine dedicated to the installation's patron saint Father Marie-Alain Couturier, advisor to the de Menils, who, in life, urged the Catholic Church to engage contemporary artists and was himself instrumental in important commissions, such as the Matisse chapel at Vence and Le Corbusier's Ronchamp church, both in France. The inner sanctum, painted rose, was dominated by a Mark Rothko paintingbands of orange, red and violet, which faced Georges Rouault's Tête de Christ; Untitled (1993 94/2005), one of Gober's drain pieces, was cut into the floor between the two. Beneath the sewer grate, a male torso, drain imbedded in the chest, filled the grotto, while redemptive, resuscitative water washed over it.
Head of Abe Lincold, 19-20th century
United States; possibly from the Wax Museum in Kansas City
Wax, hair, glass, silk
9 3/4 x 7 1/2 x 9 1/4 inches
The Menil Collection, Houston
The exhibition's title, The Meat Wagon, was taken from John de Menil's instructions regarding his own funeral arrangements. It was found in the Collection's archives, and Gober had it mounted at the entrance of the installation. De Menil wanted, among other things, a cheap wooden coffin, an African American funeral director and Bob Dylan to sing some of his early songs, such as With God On Our Side and Blowin' In The Wind (if Bob wasn't available, recordings would be satisfactory). None of this came from pride, de Menil insisted, because I'll just be a corpse for the meat wagon, a commendable expression of humilityenough to counter the assumed projection of control beyond corpsehood. Likewise, Gober's installation takes us on a journey that is utterly beyond our control. While redemptive suggestions are present in his juxtapositions, pat solutions remain intangible. We are both promised and denied transcendence at every turn.