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Robert Gober loads up "The Meat Wagon" with provocative juxtapositions

In a 1972 codicil to his will, John de Menil explained that his funeral requests didn't stem from vanity, as death would render him a "corpse for the meat wagon." It's a matter-of-fact, blunt view of death. But the stunning collection de Menil and his wife assembled lives on. From this trove, artist Robert Gober has selected amazing artwork for display at the Menil Collection.

"The Meat Wagon" is the outcome of Gober's rummage through the Menil's vast, eclectic stores. The museum's storage rooms are legendary; those who have entered them speak about the experience with a mixture of incredulity and reverence. For "The Meat Wagon," Gober mixed his selections -- art and objects spanning a variety of cultures and almost 5,000 years -- with his own sculptures to create an exhibition filled with provocative juxtapositions.

A fireplace with a fake fire crackles in the first gallery, its brick interior set flush into a pale blue wall. Instead of logs on the fire, there's a pile of wax children's legs with socks and white sandals. In front of the fireplace are prison bars that have been pulled apart -- for entering or fleeing. This work is by Gober, and it exemplifies the artist's use of surreal and unsettling images conjured from the everyday.

Intimate rooms such as this one work best.
Courtesy of the Menil Collection
Intimate rooms such as this one work best.

The dismemberment theme, which recurs in Gober's own art, emerges again and again in objects he's chosen for the exhibition. One of his memorable past sculptures is of a man's leg carefully studded with human hair, protruding from a wall.

In that first room, on a plinth next to the fireplace, rests a massive 16th-century ax head; it looks like the prototype for Hollywood's version of an executioner's ax. On the other side of the fireplace, a spooky wax head of Abe Lincoln, complete with top hat, stares calmly out of a Plexiglas vitrine. His original human-hair beard has pretty much deteriorated, but the materials alone must hold plenty of appeal for Gober. On the opposite end of the wall is a Magritte drawing of a pair of dismembered feet that end in lace-up boot tops. Over the fireplace is an 18th-century wooden Christ, sans cross and missing his left forearm. An oxen yoke over the fireplace is like a parenthesis enclosing suffering and sacrifice.

I like many of Gober's choices and juxtapositions of objects, but a lot of other pieces fill the main room, and the whole thing still feels too constrained by museum conventions. It's a fairly large space, and all the objects line the walls. Gober seems torn between curating a show and making an installation. The smaller rooms in the exhibition work better; there, the vignettes are more tightly wrought and slightly more theatrical in their presentation.

The second room, a small one, is very intimate. The walls are pale violet, with more dramatic lighting than the first room. On a low plinth lies a nearly life-size carved wooden figure of Christ pulled down from his cross. His arms are removed from their wooden joints, and Gober has placed them alongside the body. Recumbent, the body seems to be trying to sit up, and the head appears to be straining to see the missing arms. It seems far more tragic and pathetic than a crucifixion: You want to help him up. Rather than an icon of Christ, he comes across simply as a suffering human being.

On an adjoining wall hangs a Magritte painting in which a heavenly cloud has come down from a gray sky to settle on the earth. A prison window and bars by Gober are set high in the same wall; escape would be difficult. Sitting on the floor at the wall opposite is a small yellowed cardboard box, striped with packing tape. "Small Rothko Chapel Model" is printed in marker on the side of it. The Menil's art/spirituality mecca is contained in a humble, tattered box.

In the center of the room, with its back turned on the struggling Jesus, is a dress form clad in a gorgeous 1950s black evening coat by Charles James. It's beautifully cut and sculpted, with the full skirt and nipped-in waist of the New Look. The front of the coat hem is "blown" back to reveal a blood-red silk lining. The elegant vintage design feels wicked and ominous.

Another smaller room is painted a pale, sickly pastel green. A bright red Lucio Fontana painting radiates off the greenish wall, a single elegant slit in the center of its canvas creating an elegant wound. Directly opposite the painting is a closet made by Gober. It's a shallow, wood-trimmed affair that looks like it was just extracted from a Houston bungalow. Its door has been stripped away, and you can see the mark where it once hung. It even has the thick layers of paint you associate with old houses. It stands empty, like a vertical grave.

Although Gober has arranged some intriguing dialogues between objects, others are less effective, and ultimately the show is a bit of a disappointment. It seems he could have taken better advantage of this opportunity by incorporating his finds into more of an installation, using more adventurous methods of display, and experimenting more with lighting and color. Gober is a spare artist, and one would have thought he would've edited more. But faced with the Menil's embarrassment of riches, that is understandably difficult. In the end, Gober walks the middle ground, pushing slightly beyond traditional museum displays but not hard enough to take control and integrate his choices into a cohesive installation. It's a show worth seeing, but because Gober is such a talented artist, you end up wishing for more.

 
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