ART : An American Foot in the Door : Sculptor Robert Gober is first U.S. artist to exhibit in the Jeu de Paume since it was converted to a contemporary museum

Suzanne Muchnic is a Times staff writer

"It's a great opportunity to show my work in a historical place in the middle of Paris," New York artist Robert Gober said. "The Jeu de Paume has high visibility and there's a lot of curiosity about it because it's new."

As the art world knows, the Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume--where Gober's exhibition continues to Dec. 1--is not really new. Constructed in 1861 under Napoleon III as an indoor sports pavilion, the building has been used to display art since 1909.

In its previous life, from 1958-86, the Jeu de Paume housed the Louvre's unparalleled collection of French Impressionism. But these artworks were moved to the Musee d'Orsay in 1987 and architect Antoine Stinco transformed the Jeu de Paume into an airy showcase for contemporary art, which opened in June with an exhibition of Jean Dubuffet's late work.

Pleased as he is to be the first American artist to exhibit his work at the Jeu de Paume, Gober, 37, sympathizes with art lovers who mourn the demise of the beloved--if rather frumpy--house of Impressionism and lament that the paintings are ill served by the enormous train station that was converted into the Musee d'Orsay.

He even entertained the notion of temporarily re-installing the Impressionist paintings at the Jeu de Paume instead of his own sculpture as an expression of his distress. "I have such memories of the paintings in this gallery. They're so degraded at the Musee d'Orsay," he said in an interview at the Jeu de Paume.

But the exhibition that evolved fills the spacious second floor of gallery with Gober's unorthodox sculptures from 1983-91 of such objects as sinks and body parts. Concurrently, French artist Pierre Dunoyer's paintings occupy the first floor and Chilean filmmaker Raul Ruiz's video installation, "The Expulsion of the Moors," is on view in the subterranean galleries.

Gober, who grew up in Wallingford, Conn., moved to New York in 1976 after graduation from Middlebury College and initially supported himself as a carpenter. He seemed to burst from nowhere at his 1984 debut at the Paula Cooper Gallery, but soon compiled an international resume, including exhibitions in Athens, Cologne and Rotterdam.

In Los Angeles, Gober has shown his work at the Daniel Weinberg Gallery, and the County Museum of Art has one of his sink sculptures in its permanent collection, as a gift of Robert Halff. A recent group exhibition, "Comfort," at the Christopher Grimes Gallery in Santa Monica, included an edition of bookplates by Gober.

His work has won acclaim in the United States and Europe, leading critic Dan Cameron to write that Gober is "possibly the most influential American artist in the world" in Galeries Magazine. Still, he may seem an unexpected choice for the Jeu de Paume's first American artist.

Why Gober?

"I think his work is important because it deals with situations in daily life. His work is very disturbing and that means it's worthwhile. It means something," museum director Alfred Pacquement said.

Pacquement, who has charted a rather unpredictable course for the gallery, liked the fact that this is Gober's first solo exhibition in Paris. Furthermore, Gober is a distinctive individual, not a face in the art crowd. "I think it's important to show individuals, not movements. Otherwise you explain nothing," the director said.

Gober's show is a strange, poignant spectacle that evokes feelings of loneliness and human imperfection. Realistic, life-size wax sculptures of men's legs and rear ends protrude from walls in several rooms. A female breast sculpture hangs on one wall while a half-female, half-male torso slumps in a corner.

Other works are handmade likenesses of fixtures and structures devised for human or animal use. Three urinal sculptures hang in one gallery along with a big drainless sink. A metal drain sculpture is set into a wall in another room. A wicker dog bed--its cushion covered with printed fabric depicting a lynched black man and a sleeping white man--sits in a corner.

One artwork is a full-scale empty closet that looks as if it had been transported from a 1940s apartment--complete with nicks and indentations where door hinges were removed. Throughout these galleries everything is clinically clean, but there are clear traces of a human touch.

The centerpiece of the show is an installation occupying the largest room. For this ambitious new piece, Gober completely papered the walls in silk-screened panels, producing the effect of a light-filled forest seen through a kaleidoscope. A six-foot "Cigar" sits in the middle of the room, while sculptures of male buttocks and legs protrude from opposing walls and lie, stomach down, on the floor.

One of these wax figures--clad in underwear, tennis shoes and white socks--has drains set into his buttocks and bare legs. On the other figure, thick white candles rise from the legs through flaps cut in dark trousers. Another candle appears on a pedestal at the end of the show, this time with dark hair sprouting from a wax base.

A soft-spoken man who has an aversion to being photographed and to the art world's publicity machine, Gober is generous with information about his work but inclined to end his answers with the question, "What do you think?"

The issues that interest him are "mortality, the importance of gender, the things you overlook in life, the things that play a big part," Gober said.

He develops these themes in recognizable forms with equivocal meanings. "Realism is a hook, on an entertainment level. It makes the work accessible and provides information. People don't feel excluded," Gober said. But when viewers become intrigued with his art, he doesn't expect them to arrive at a prescribed interpretation. "The better the piece, the more complex the intersection of reactions to it," he said.

His sculptures of clothed legs--generally molded from an assistant's body--are concerned with "the moment when a man's pant leg doesn't meet his socks," Gober said. The slice of bare, hairy flesh is not a part of the body that's usually given much attention, but it's very revealing and vulnerable, he said. "I wanted to deal with that embarrassing moment of exposure."

"I had gone to a museum of natural history in Bern, Switzerland, a few years ago," Gober said, recalling the origin of the idea. "I realized that there are no dioramas of human beings. It's a wide-open territory. Then, on the plane going home, I noticed a businessman whose pants leg didn't meet his socks."

The idea took hold and the first legs evolved--cut off below the knee and clothed in shoes, socks and too-short trousers. As to why the legs jut out of walls, "There are only so many things you can do with sculpture: put it on a pedestal, make it free-standing. This is much more evocative," Gober said.

Over the past couple of years, he has made the legs longer, sometimes omitting trousers and combining the legs with other things. These mergers of human parts and man-made objects came about intuitively, as combinations of elements he had already used as separate artworks, Gober said. The sexual resonance did not occur by chance, however. The candles are clearly phallic and the drains are a classic female symbol, he said.

Some of his recent work has been concerned with hybrid sexuality, but it's "tricky territory," he said. Anything that evokes feminist issues can be a minefield, "but it's a minefield I love. I have enormous respect for the generation of women who went before me," he said.

Critics have noted Gober's compelling encounters with such big issues as death, sex and racism, his penchant for making the domestic strange and an apparent obsession with making art by hand.

"The function of the work is concerned with values, what's important in life," he said.

His exhibition at the Jeu de Paume presents "a clear perspective of my work for anyone who is interested. It represents my sensibility. People can see it, and take it or leave it," he said.

He has aspirations for his Paris debut, however. "One day when I was working on the show, I looked out the window and saw what looked like a typical Frenchman in the Tuileries with his kids. I thought, 'I hope that I can give him a kick and make him think.' "

About what?

"I think it's self-evident," he said. "What do you think?"

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