Robert Gober's rich and unsettling iconography—from dysfunctional sinks and handcrafted furniture to truncated body parts and storm drains—has unfolded sequentially over the past 25 years. Each new work has seemed unprecedented and startlingly fresh in its bold narrative form. But much of his innovative vocabulary was already articulated in his early Slides of a Changing Painting (1982–83), which documents the permutations of a single canvas that he altered over a year's time, photographing each modification until he had thousands of individual records. Whittled down to 89 slides, it functions today as a key to Gober's practice. Projected in sequence, the images morph into one another, revealing a transformative process at work: a human body becomes a landscape and then an architectural interior, stairs descend a man's chest into a basement, a culvert pipe diverts a stream across a torso. Water is pervasive throughout; it cascades down a mountainside and pours forth from cantilevered drainpipes. This early investigation led to the artist's ghostly sculptural sinks, which were painstakingly handcrafted to resemble pearly white porcelain structures. In Backsplash, Gober focused on the featureless slab that forms the back wall of the sink, reducing it to a spare, minimal form that is rendered almost unrecognizable, yet retains a disorienting familiarity.
The culvert pipe was not realized in sculptural form until 1994, when Gober began three enigmatic works: an oversize box of tissues penetrated by a metal pipe, an armchair impaled by the same type of pipe, and a huge box of lard divided by a cruciform of pipes. The artist revisited this sculptural equation and its intimations of sexual aggression in his 1997 installation that included a life-size Madonna figure pierced through the center by a culvert pipe—a complex, haunting symbol amid an environment of running water and storm drains.
In Untitled, a six-foot culvert pipe uncannily and inexplicably penetrates a willow basket, again creating a surreal image that links motifs in Gober's oeuvre. The oversize basket, handwoven by the artist, harks back to his dog beds of the mid-1980s, their pillows imprinted with quaint yet menacing images of geese and stags, favored prey of hunting canines. Those works' gothic connotations resonate in the present sculpture, particularly in its pierced state. It is interesting to note that Gober's initial concept for his 1997 installation—in which the secular, sacred, and psychological are fused—involved the placement of a large, woven basket in the center of the gallery, the space eventually occupied by the Virgin Mary.