Why Louise Bourgeois’ and Robert Gober’s Feminist and Queer Uncanny Survive the Treachery of Art History

By G. Roger Denson

Two concurrent exhibitions in New York at the end of 2014 prove that the Surrealist legacy still informs some of the most vital and psychologically compelling art of the late 20th century — as it still informs, albeit critically and via ironic realignments, a good deal of contemporary art today. The Heart Is Not A Metaphor, the Robert Gober retrospective at MoMA, and Suspensions, the small but enthralling exhibition of suspended sculptures by Louise Bourgeois at Cheim Read Gallery, both derive their power in large part from the near century-old Surrealist project of exposing and mediating

Finessing virtuoso compositions of the Uncanny in an age of open sexuality and within art world obsessed with The New is no small achievement, given that the Uncanny is a concept derived from the 19th-century German Idealist philosophy of Hegel and Schelling to explain experiences of discomfort. It is a notion refined by Freud at the turn of the 20th-century to suit his theory of neurosis that, in the hands of the Surrealists of the 1920s and 1930s, and particularly its leader, Andre Breton, expanded the Uncanny as the motivating principle and vision that drove the Surrealists to call for an anti-aesthetic revolution seeking the integration of a Convulsive Beauty within everyday life.

Through their art we can see that Bourgeois and Gober clearly consented (however intuitively or conceptually) to Schelling’s definition of the Uncanny as the uncovering of phenomena for which we are unprepared. Better known is Freud’s development of the Uncanny as our experience of phenomena that strikes us as simultaneously “familiar yet strange”, particularly in those experiences of our awakening to desires that are repressed by moral authorities and thereby manifest as fetishistic (that is protective) condensations of the objects of desire, while also being their (equally protective) effacements — that erotic conflation of forbidden desire for random and impersonal genitalia with objects that could pass the inspection of moral authorities of the day — the fetishistic hat whose folds arouse memory of and desire for the furtive vulva; the cigar whose heft fills the void and yearning for the real but absent penis in the mouth.

Of course, Bourgeois and Gober, like other contemporary artists riveted to Surrealism, had to remake the Uncanny just as they had to revive Surrealism. The fundamental problem was that the fetish lost its power to command artistic production once The Pill and its resultant Sexual Revolution overtook the conservative moral climate of the 1960s. With sexuality now openly discussed and viewed, the Uncanny had to refer to something more than the fetish, and in the 1980s, the climate of sexual and gender activism would provide a new context for the Surrealist revolution. But I’ve gotten ahead of the narrative, as the legacy of Surrealism first has to be contended with as a viable departure for both artists, which the two exhibitions conveniently provide for us.

Through its reliance on the singular motif of the suspension sculptures of Louise Bourgeois, the Cheim Read Gallery compels …read more

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