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


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Mary Obering at Littlejohn/Sternau Gallery 1995
41 East 57th Street, Manhattan

   For all their golden glamour, Mary Oberings's recent single panel abstractions could be adornments for a simple, white-washed chapel. These opulent, schematized paintings suggest trecento and quattrocento altar-pieces, as do their materials - egg tempera and gold leaf. Although the horizontal and vertical alignments and the taut equilibrium of her compositions also evoke thoughts of Mondrian, Obering's primaries are linked as much to the rich reds, blues and golds of Duccio and Cinabue as they are to 20th century reductivism. At times her palette is sweetened by a line of tender pink, a stroke of pale blue or an underlayer of delicate green. One painting (dedicated to Fellini) flaunts a startling, searing orange; the artist spends much time in Italy, and it shows.

   Obering's panels are modestly scaled, solidly constructed and boxlike; most measure 4 by 2 feet with a generous 6-inch depth. They are painted and gilded on every surface - front, sides, top and bottom - emphasizing their relationship to sculpture and architecture. One perfectly balanced little square painting is divided vertically; half black, half a beautifully smoothed, thick white topped by a burnished, semicircular pediment, it resembles both a retable and the simplified facade of a church. Obering's whites are superb. In PPD (the paintings are named for people who have meant much to the artist) they are subtly rimmed in pink. Gently brushed, these whites seem almost feathered.

   Gold, however, provides the rapture in this show. Laid in courses like small bricks or tesserae, Obering's gold leaf is more visible in some areas than others, depending upon the extent of oxidation. Often the panel is quartered, shared by two vertical monochromatic rectangles of contrasting hues. The flatness of the painted sections contrasts with the ambiguous, blurred depths of the gold leaf, which sometimes draws the gaze inward and sometimes, with dazzling opacity, repels it.

   While Obering seems to comment on painting's flatness and its materiality - Minimalist formulas amplified - her real project seems to be that of pure visual pleasure. These gleaming panels, as luxurious as any that she has made, nonetheless avoid the merely decorative, a designation more likely to apply to her extended, multipanel installations. Sophisticated yet non ironic, with a full-blown beauty, these works radiate a conviction that proves contagious.

Lilly Wei


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