A NOTE ON GOBER’S PAT

A mimetic sculpture exists other than the thing it mimes (and existence is not altogether another story). Like a wax-museum figure, it’s definitely not the real thing, despite the resemblence it bears. It resists a fresh impression, as if binding its viewer to that first glance, without pondering it further. Looking at Robert Gober’s giant sculptural butter replica, Untitled (1993–94), currently on view at the Portland Art Museum, it’s nothing we haven’t seen before, but is novel as an object of translation.

Untitled is composed of a material you may know, beeswax, shaped to resemble or even ‘become’ another material you know may know even better, butter, ridiculously oversized. In any case, is this just a giant waste of materials? In the midst of this object, one is in limbo, knowing well the medium and its assumed effect, which is at present moment one of nonplus verging on skepticism . To me, this is an ideal situation for looking at art, one capable of confusing, and thus changing, your mind.

In a way, Gober has treated the enlarged, otherwise banal form and its gigantic unfolded wax wrapper with the same amount of intensity of resemblance through modeling that the “old masters” did their aristocratic subjects, so as to ramp up the grandiosity and dramatic effect. But he turns instead to the diurnal. It’s not a simple mannerist distortion of scale — psychological effect diverging from structural logic — or cute surrealist juxtaposition, but a harmonious mock cloning in the vernacular of your average kitchen. Gober’s sculptures hinge upon the familiar made hypnogogic, larger-than-life, as a statement on life’s objects and their settings. Being released from the sentimentality of the folksy everyday makes certain works of art worth spending time with. And so it takes work to approach this and imagine more than just a huge, disgusting mass of butter and what would happen if you ate it; the form makes you try hard to see what it is you’re looking at, what Gober is trying to do to you by making and then presenting it.

Untitled appears prosaic and in that, it retains an aspect of the classic without being forcibly impressive as “art.” Remember, it’s also just foodstuff, or it’s something you’d burn a wick within, or what you’d smooth out over your lips. The sculpture is coolly laid out on a dais in the middle of the museum floor, and can’t escape being a visual pun; it’s a worthwhile experience, and all the more humorous for this fact: it’s pat.

(Robert Gober, Untitled (1993–94), beeswax, wood, glassine and fiber-tipped pen, 9 1/2 by 48 by 40 inches.)