By Roman Kalinovski
An opaque black bar covers a third of Fredericks & Freiser’s 24th Street window. This device serves a practical purpose: it prevents innocent eyes from catching a glimpse of the sexually-charged work on display. As it censors the erotic content inside, the bar draws attention to how the space of the gallery is divided. It cuts the window into thirds and sets up a series of binaries: interior and exterior, visible and obscured, permitted and prohibited. Perhaps unintentionally, perhaps on purpose, this gesture complements the pieces by Robert Overby shown inside by adding another layer on top of his already multi-layered work.
Robert Overby, born in 1935, received limited recognition as an artist prior to his death in 1993. His showing record at that point consisted of handful of exhibitions in Los Angeles, where he was better known as a graphic designer. Three years after his death, Fredericks & Freiser began attending to his legacy, this current outing being his sixth posthumous exhibition with the gallery. The pieces currently on view are united in that none of them bear Overby’s own signature but, rather, they are signed with an occasional pseudonym, “Esquire Showcard.”
Displayed front and center in the main room is the colossal painting the gallery is so eager to hide from the outside world: UT Daylillies (1977). It depicts a bottomless kneeling woman from behind — feet together, knees apart — with her green dress pulled above her waist and a backwards glance directed at the viewer. In the very center of the canvas is an “X,” lightly inscribed in pencil. This easily overlooked mark creates a purely formal focal point uncharged by the figure’s provocative posture or sensual gaze. The two other focal points — the figure’s face and genitalia — only draw our attention because of the meaning we give them. Nothing about those areas should, in formal terms at least, be any more attractive than the center of the composition.
The figure is framed by tulips and lilies that seem to float on a plane above her. The flowers look to have been painted by a different hand than the body: she is blurred and preliminary while they are sharp, exact, indeed nearly overworked. The effect is that of two paintings merged into one, as if the flowers were lifted from a magazine advertisement and collaged on top of an unfinished erotic painting. Many of Overby’s other works used literal layers of material to create similar effects. On the wall opposite Daylillies hangs No Title (ref #35), 17, 21, 22 March 1989, 8 Feb 88, a Polaroid with multiple layers of translucent acetate film taped to it. Each layer contains a small gouache painting of lines, grids, or dots. The impermanence of the tape gives the impression that the composition was never finalized, that Overby could come back and change the entire piece by rotating one piece of film or shifting another, hiding or revealing parts of the underlying photograph.
A suite of interconnected works are installed in the gallery’s back room (see installation shot, above). The space is dominated by Bonnie (1978), another large-scale painting of a female nude. The figure stands slightly off center on the canvas, with her right nipple serving as the piece’s focal point as well as the vanishing point for the perspectival lines radiating up from the floor and from the painting on the wall behind her. This painting, a yellow field flanked by thin blue stripes, is also in the room on the wall facing Bonnie. Yellow Blue (1978) is thus shown twice: mise-en-abysme in the fictional space of another painting, and in the real space of the actual gallery. Yellow Scoot (1970), an installation of extension cords and a yellow light bulb, has an intertextual connection with Bonnie as well. Depicted at the figure’s feet is a power socket; the wires of Yellow Scoot continue from where the space of the painting ends, the nude figure illuminated by the golden glow of a naked bulb from a world beyond the canvas.
Robert Overby left behind a body of work open to ongoing fruitful excavation. The black bar on the gallery’s window is one more layer stuck on top of the layers of acetate film of his collages, the layers of pictorial space in his paintings, and the layers of self-reference in works that reach out to each other through time and space. The black sticker will likely be peeled off and thrown away once the show comes down, but Overby’s oeuvre will remain, ready to be re-layered and rearranged in configurations he may have never predicted.