Mary Obering, Artist, New York City. Review: Art in America


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Mary Obering at Annina Nosei Gallery 1988
New York City, New York

   Mary Obering's recent work, a hybrid of painting and sculpture, places an attractively varied formal vocabulary at the service of some rather quirky ideas. On the whole, the single-paneled, more painting like works are the most engaging. These are simple abstract geometric compositions rendered on gessoed masonite in an array of dense, concentrated substances including burnishing clay and tempera in an encaustic medium. One piece consists of four odd-sized rectangular fields: a column like element of russet-brown scored with subtle crosshatching; another of gold leaf that abuts a nearly square field of dove-gray, troubled with delicate, wispy strokes as if a wax buffer had been passed over the surface; and finally, running down the side and across the bottom of the painting, a big, horizontally oriented L of a creamy, ivory white encaustic. The effect of the whole piece was rather like that afforded by antique polychromed alabaster: it looked at once precious and synthetic, sumptuous and inexpressively decorative, even tacky. (Among younger painters Obering's work brings Michael Young's most quickly to mind).

   Elsewhere in the show ambiguous glamour gave way to real singularity. As if to provide a key, Obering included a piece dating from 1983. Titled Elements, it consisted of four small, discrete, shaped paintings hung one above the other, one containing an image of the moon sitting among schematic waves for Water, another a small red triangular painting of flames for Fire, and so on. The modular format, the use of small images, and the eccentric mapping-out of the wall surface are all characteristics of Obering's new and more radically "sculptural" work. Muon Maker, for instance, flat and entirely wall-depending, has at its center a jagged vertical form, like a thick schematic bolt of lightning. From each of the canvas's four squared-off corners projected a round, medallion like panel bearing abstract symbols - a yellow cross on white ground, a silver rectangle on black, and odd little M-shaped wave forms, of a kind familiar from the 1983 piece but now so abstract as to give the round shapes the look of public directional signs.

   If Elements and the recent abstract panels suggest the past - an alchemical mystery in the one, an imperial elegance in the other - Muon Maker seems intended to evoke the future, and specifically technology (a muon, it may be noted, is a species of nuclear particle). Yet the future the artist appears to have in mind is that of the Star-Wars variety of a decade ago; her cutout stepped shape climbing up the wall, culminating in a little black cross which looks as if it's about to commence a free-fall, transports us into a world of portentous, spiritualizing, irresistible claptrap. It is an appealing world as Obering has made it, but not one that invites an extended stay. In fact, its chief function in this show was to send us back with deepened interest to the complex beauty of Obering's abstract paintings.

Holland Cotter

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