Robert Overby: “Works 1969-1987″
In 1971, Robert Overby went to a derelict, burned-out building in Los Angeles called the “Barclay House”, painted thick layers of latex rubber directly on the building facades and architectural fragments, let the latex harden and then peeled it off. The resulting serial castings recorded every bump, scratch and blemish on the house in meticulous detail, mapping out air vents, pipes, patch repairs, and grooves marking the edges of cladding. The features often exaggerated the sense of decay and the passage of time, making it more of a personal interpretation rather than a loyal reproduction. Among the pieces from that series of work, which spanned everything from single doors to 5 meters long walls, there’s one that stands out, called “East room with two windows, third floor”. The rusty, iron-tinged ocher palette, the decadent plasticity of the rubber latex, the two windows that resemble vacuous eyes, make it look like a weirdly anthropomorphic ghostly mask; it is a simultaneously haunting and haunted vision that is hard not to be captivated by. Interestingly, the rough, almost primordial, quality of those hollow windows will, in a few months’ time, be contrasted by the shimmering and luminous windowpanes surrounding the galleries of the Centre d’Art Contemporain in Genève, where from January 30th the first institutional survey exhibition of Overby’s work in Europe will be presented. The show, which is curated by Alessandro Rabottini, will then travel to the GAMeC – Galleria d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea in Bergamo, Italy in May, and finally to the Bergen Kunsthall in Norway, from September 2014.
Windows will not be the only strong contrast integral to the Genève show: the numerous concrete and plaster casts made by Overby in the seventies will stand out sharply against his “stretched drawing” series from the same years (for example “Magnetic Stretch”, an intriguing piece made of shiny PVC and resin in bright, artificial colors); Overby’s subtle, faint, and slightly out of focus paintings of headless torsos (including the exquisite “Vertical torso with grey edge” from 1973) will be at odds with the “montages” series, where collages of explicit close-ups stills cut from porn movies generate over-detailed and straight-forward visual rendering of various orgies. As a matter of fact, Overby has been shifting between styles, media, practices, materials and school of thoughts throughout his career. But while most of his pieces differ in appearance, they are all connected by the artist’s fascination with façades, planes and skins of people, of buildings, of inanimate objects (like the 1971’s “Rubber sock” included in the show that it was allegedly his first rubber cast). As Andrew Berardini wrote exactly a year ago for this very magazine, “[Overby] skinned many a building, the skin more real than the thing being skinned.”
In the end, his investigation of the interaction between surface and meaning drew Overby to produce a number of “masks”, some maybe accidental like the cast of the East Room of the Barclay House, some more unequivocal, as illustrated by perhaps his most iconic painting, “Pink head”, a flesh-colored latex rubber facemask. It is an intriguing and somewhat disturbing image; at first it looks like a painterly version of a shot by Jimmy De Sana in his collaboration with Terence Sellers; but if one looks at it less superficially he or she will soon notice that the neck ends abruptly, the face has no nose, the lips are painted onto the rubber, wrinkles catch the light where breath suctions it in, the narrow eye-holes are crooked and misaligned, with only one eyeball weirdly peering through. Once again, Overby proves that rather than just recording the surface his interest lies in exploiting its imperfection, in revealing the flaws in the crust.
It is not by chance that all the painted S&M masks and the latex wall casts presented in the Genève exhibition look flaccid and slack like slough, the dead outer skin shed by a reptile. Earlier critics of Overby’s work pointed out that this limpness might recall Claes Oldenburg’s works – but those had a kind of candidly dull happiness written all around them, while Overby’s stand out more as an admission of defeat. It is also worth noting that beside “Pink Face”, another seminal portrait is presented here, “Untitled (Monk Restoration)” from 1973. The painting, which comes from a series of copied old-master portraits, depicts a curly-headed young monk in adoration, shown in profile. The two images could hardly be more antithetical, but in both paintings, in much the same way that too much makeup makes a face look ghastly rather than fresh, the artist highlights flawed lines and pictorial weaknesses rather than concealing them. As art historian Ian Blom pointed out, speaking of Overby’s work, “it tells stories the way a cadaver on a dissection table does – what used to be ‘just life’ is now ‘information’.” And as a matter of fact, the surprising range of the artist’s production presented in the show leaves the viewer itching to see just what’s inside that lifeless body, who’s hiding behind the flawed mask. Suddenly, you just want to dismember more, to dig deeper, to frantically scratch at all those surfaces and explore the imperfections hiding within.