My grandmother says smart things often. In a comparison that leaped across centuries, she likened Hieronymus Bosch to Robert Gober. A quick Google search makes this connection seem outlandish. What does a 15th-century Biblical visionary have to do with a contemporary hairy cheese fiend? The works of both are shocking in their own way. But my grandmother was right: The connection goes deeper than the way each artist makes you look—or look away.


When I first saw it in 2022 at Madrid’s Prado, Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights had me captivated for at least half an hour. It’s a fantastic triptych, huge and strange. The outer panels form two halves of a vegetal crystal ball, with a tiny God thinking up a gargantuan earth. On the inside, Eden, Earth, Hell—a descent from relative normalcy into degeneracy. In Eden, God joins Adam and Eve in front of a swamp of mystical rodents. On Earth, nude horsemen circumambulate a pool of women with apples balanced atop their blonde heads. In Hell, two huge ears flank a phallic spear.


For a triptych that predated Dalí’s languid horses, Tanguy’s billowy forms, and Depp’s acid-riddled Wonderland, it was bizarre. Detail upon freakish detail revealed itself. I wonder if Bosch looked at the finished work with a kind of vertigo, knowing he invested two decades of his life constructing a fantastic and daunting world. Such insanity, in detailed, technically perfect glory, was exhilarating. The surrealists, I’m sure, understood this feeling.


It is equally exciting, though, when a work repulses you so much as to make you laugh and turn away, disgusted and incredulous. This was my reaction when I saw a trinity of another kind–three child legs swinging out of a kitchen sink in Houston, Texas, at the Menil Collection.


Robert Gober used an amalgam of beeswax, cotton, leather, aluminum, enamel, and human hair to create this sculpture which, of course, he left untitled. It’s a huge sink with a drain and no faucet. Three right feet—little girls’ feet, no less—each snug in a dainty sock and sandal, adorn the piece. The legs, waxy and limp, disturb me. One projects out of the wall above the sink, another emerges from the drain and hangs over the right rim, and the third dangles below the sink under the drain. It seems like the foot hanging over the side and the one dangling below might share a common leg–a macabre jump rope. These legs have no knees. The smooth wax renders each limb, otherwise reminiscent of movement and play, limp and passive. They look like thick, firm hoses.


Just as Bosch made me stop in my tracks, Gober made me stare, this time with more revulsion than admiration. As one makes a double take at a mangled squirrel in the road, I looked on, noticing details of a different nature. The legs, otherwise quite dead-looking but still girlish and young, were covered in long prickly hair. Human hair. Planted into those waxy, tubular limbs, the hair made me itch. The whole thing was horrifying and disgusting… yet hilarious. I couldn’t look, and yet I had to. I loved the thing. My grandmother had to see it.


My grandmother loves Robert Gober. Calls him “Bob.” On a Saturday morning, I marched her and my grandfather to the museum. My grandfather stood before the sink, his mouth morphed in a scowl, the kind he wears when he gets a spam call. Spam, spam, spam! He walked away and looked at some tiny wooden books in the other room. My grandmother came over. She looked inside the sink and a guard told her to back away from the artwork. Smiling, she said, “It’s funny–the feet kinda read feminine, and then you’ve got those hairy legs.” Bob did it, pairing man and girl, death and domestic life, horror and humor. And Grandma got it.


I once heard someone say, “humor comes from incongruity.” The hairy legs were just Gober getting started. He paired child’s play and death, planting the whole violent scene in a quiet museum, geriatric feet in orthopedic shoes shuffling all around in the echoey room. What could be banal—a sink, some legs, old socks—became horrific. And where were the torsos? Body parts and sink bits, some jumbled up and others omitted, created a language of horror, and then, humor.


I can only imagine Bosch was onto something similar when he painted those capricious wildmen, their little pale butts riding unicorn backs. Was he trying to be funny? Art historian Sally Hickson described The Garden of Earthly Delights as a representation of the “comic ephemerality of human life.” In other words, Bosch was laughing at death. She notes that the interior, while a triptych, abandons the form’s conventions, painting a secular picture. And yet, God introduces Adam and Eve. Around them, creatures dance and indulge and huddle and purge. Birds shit humans. Dying men fart birds. He treats euphoria and terror with the same technical perfection, blurring the line between a familiar Earth and an alien world.


At dinner, I prompted my grandmother to say more about “Bob’s piece.” She gave me a wonderfully concise and accurate history of his work: “The first sinks were just sinks. And then they got kinda fiddled with. And then stuff got put in ‘em.” It sounded a little like the transition from Eden to Hell. To an ordinary sink, Gober added ordinary things (like legs), and then more ordinary things (hair, socks, shoes), until suddenly, the kitchen sink became extraordinary. In the face of something so extraordinary, one can laugh, scowl, and rant, spam, spam, spam! To someone bold enough to personally plant human hair in his artwork, I don’t think a high brow reaction matters much. Anything goes.


No doubt, museums can be places of exclusion and pretension. But they also give us the chance to appreciate the union of beauty and disgust, allowing ourselves to laugh at it. There are few places where one can stop, laugh, and walk away, ruminating, as I still am, on everything between heaven and hell, including the kitchen sink.