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Stop, Look and Look Again

The centerpiece of Robert Gober's installation at Geffen Contemporary is bound to turn heads. But there's more to the work, beyond the surface and even underground, than first meets the eye.

August 31, 1997|Suzanne Muchnic | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

Since its opening in 1983, the Museum of Contemporary Art's cavernous space in Little Tokyo has been the scene of many startling sights. Sculptor Chris Burden has excavated a massive hole in the building's concrete floor; Ann Carlson and Mary Ellen Strom have installed a live rodeo, complete with horse; dancers in the Elizabeth Streb Ringside company have crashed through plate glass walls and bounced off spring-loaded floors.

The surprise factor is part of the point of the vast, flexible, warehouse-like outpost--originally known as the Temporary Contemporary but now called the Geffen Contemporary, in honor of entertainment mogul David Geffen's $5-million gift to the museum. The 55,000-square-foot facility gives enormous latitude to artists and encourages experimentation, while MOCA's beautiful but relatively staid main building, up the hill on Grand Avenue, provides a more conventional exhibition space.

Still, even the most seasoned TC/GC aficionados probably will be taken aback by Robert Gober's new installation, which opens next Sunday. Unlike some of its most astonishing predecessors, Gober's work doesn't pack its first punch in a spectacle of audacity, bravado or sheer physical effort. He makes an impression by turning a strangely familiar world upside down.

Seen from the ramp leading down to the central, square enclosure occupied by the artwork, Gober's installation is symmetrical, serene and dark, except for theatrical lighting designed by Jennifer Tipton. The focal point is a larger-than-lifesize statue of the Virgin Mary with outstretched hands, standing in the center of the room. Cast in concrete and sandblasted to resemble a weathered statue in a cemetery or garden, she's a peaceful figure, but her body is pierced by a bronze culvert pipe that casts a long shadow on the lower part of her robe.

As visitors look beyond the Virgin, they will notice she is framed by a cedar stairway built into the back wall of the room. A torrent of water from an unseen source rushes down the stairs at the rate of 180 gallons a minute, puddles at the bottom and disappears into a grate in the floor.

And that isn't all there is to see in Gober's sparsely furnished room. On either side of the statue, an oversize, old-fashioned suitcase sits on the floor with its lid wide open, inviting visitors to come closer and inspect the contents.

Even at a distance, the installation is Essence of Gober--which is to say he has outdone himself to create an enormously complicated, psychologically charged environment that only appears to be simple. The 42-year-old New York-based artist is known for meticulously handcrafted sculptures and environments that focus on banal objects but grapple with the anxieties of sexual identity, racial prejudice, bodily functions, obsessive cleanliness and the Catholic faith.

One of the most influential and challenging American artists to achieve internationalprominence in the 1980s, Gober has compiled an impressive body of conceptual sculpture. Among many other pieces, he has created a wedding gown and had himself photographed in it; sculpted industrial sinks and drains; fashioned wax replicas of human legs that protrude from walls; and designed wallpaper that depicts a dense forest, human genitalia or a white man sleeping near a lynched black man.

Gober's new work at the GC exemplifies his penchant for presenting equivocal meanings and messy feelings in neat packages. In formal terms, there are no loose ends, no fuzzy edges. Yet, when visitors walk into the installation and explore it, they will discover an entirely different universe below the surface along with a labyrinth of metaphorical possibilities.

"I think it may be disappointing at first," Gober said of his new work, while supervising its construction. "It's quite dark. But you will hear the water and that will make you want to get closer to see it. Then it's a process of finding."

The major revelation is that the Virgin and the suitcases stand on cast bronze grates above simulated tide pools, installed eight feet below the concrete floor. Looking straight down into the grates and through brick shafts just below them, visitors will see brightly lighted pools, teeming with hand-made seaweed, rocks, shells and coins immersed in swirling water. Reflections of sky and clouds are projected on the water from color transparencies.

Walking around the suitcases and peering in from one side, viewers will suddenly discover the realistically sculpted bare feet and lower legs of a man who stands in the pool while dipping the feet of a diaper-clad baby into the water. It's as if a slice of an idyllic, brilliantly sunny summer day at the beach has been transplanted underground. The subterranean scene contrasts sharply with the still, dark solemnity of the mausoleum-like room above.

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