Whitehot Magazine

Rob Ober: Surrender at SHRINE

Young Picasso, 2023, acrylic, 24 x 18 in. Courtesy of the artist.

By EDWARD WAISNIS  April 7, 2024

Having been raised in a disparate group of far-flung corners (Moscow, Delhi, Athens and Bethesda, MD–being the son of a diplomat rationally explains this situation) Rob Ober’s path to painting is as unusual as his upbringing. He collected Russian art, and opened a gallery in Connecticut, nearly twenty years ago, where he showed painters, many of them friends, Katherine Bradford and Robert Nava being among the most prominent.

Simultaneously, Ober was/is a history teacher, also in Connecticut, and only fully committed to painting in 2016. Some attention through Instagram eventually landed him at this gallery a couple of years ago. Factoring these biographical trajectories, befitting the program of this gallery, which is built on showing and promoting work by artists on the peripheries of the art world one way or another; self-taught, or having entered the fray from a non-traditional path.

Midnight, 2024, acrylic, 96 x 83 in. Courtesy of the artist.

In Ober’s case the gallery's program provides ratification that this exhibition is at the correct venue for this dazzling show. The artist  has stated that he “never made art with the intent of becoming an artist of having an art career or showing my art”1,  and that he approaches “painting intuitively and with very little time spent second guessing himself.
” And that “…it often feels like something, or someone, has taken over his hand re-laying scenes with iconic deities, demons, witches, historical figures, carnal acts and his memories of living abroad. But it’s all him, of course, there is no divine intervention; it is simply Rob Ober believing in himself and the process, and more importantly letting himself go to it. On the best days, the experience is transformative and spiritual…” 2 His stake at such a commitment makes his ‘arrival’ all the sweeter.

Besides the accretion of his experiences, there are signposts within Ober’s paint handling and subjects that create something of an ode to Neo-Expressionism. Aptly titled “Surrender”, the work in the exhibition presses composition to over-activation, grounding the surface with aggressively applied applications of often smutty, but always vibrant acrylics. Said application is more troweled and scared, rather than brushed on. And there appears to have been a good deal of direct mixing on the canvas. Obers favoring of atmosphere over the precision of surface serves to touch the deeper parts of one's being.

Drawing, as the act of defining structure and outlining composition intent, plays a key role in Obers’ process. Broken jittery line, sometimes appearing to be applied using the tube as the application device, not only enunciates Obers’ connection with recent mainstream art world vernacular as an iteration of the au courant in painting. I’m thinking here of the work of Thomas Trosch, which happened to be on display in an exhibition across town at Fredericks & Freiser coinciding with Obers
’ show. It is primarily the thrust of paint handling, its visceral quality, that is most effective, whether squeezed, slathered, or slashed in application.

There is the carnival raucousness we’ve seen before in the work of Calder, Basquait and DuBuffet. However Obers mass celebrations hang like interstellar miasmas of slapped-on and dragged pigment that may sound unpleasant, but the optic nerve delivers satisfaction. This is particularly evident in a most recent canvas, “Midnight”, 2024 with its soothing blues harmonizing with icy whites that hold up a vast field of what may be spacemen and/or robots cavorting.

Dubuffet built a career on everything but the kitchen sink repetitive Brutalism. Ober works against the strategy forged by the School of Paris master, by exuding the feeling of being surrounded, perhaps encased, by frontal observation that bends the image to the peripheries. Coming from a Germanic tradition (Ober was born in Wiesbaden) that saw a resurgence in the 1980s with Neo-Expressionism, but most excitingly ruminating on a period of merged solidarity that never happened, but looked oh so bright at the time. I’m talking about the short-lived, but protean, East Village Scene. Showing here are a subgroup of but more importantly, in this comparison, is the work of  Walter Dahn and Jiri Georg Doukopil, Jorg Immendorf and A.R. Penck.

Faculty Meeting, 2024, acrylic, 96 x 83 in. Courtesy of the artist.

“Bacon + Beans”, 2023, strongly evokes the mid-career bulky figure works of Dubuffet, and is rendered with what I can only describe as having shrieking proto-1950s Cobra coloration.

Another work that delves into similar terrain, with more ‘air’ added by a prodigious amount of white spaces between figures, aided by a composition that recalls the folkloric whimsy one finds in Ken Kiff’s work, is “Sketchbook” 2024. Its centric structure even manages to harbor a small cross and a Star of David. Is Ober considering geo-global politics here, or, simply, throwing in whatever sticks? I think not. I am inclined to think it is the manifestation of a healthy grasp of inclusiveness.

“Mango”, 2024, depicts a monumental amphibian, with sympathetic eyes, emerging from swampy grasslands loomed over by appealingly sketchy reeds, is rendered in a shade that calls attention to the painting's title. Laying, or submerged, in the pool that predominates the lower quarter of this nearly eight foot square canvas, is a human figure, in icy blue, sinking, or drowning, whose visage is strangely reminiscent of the silhouetted figure that appears in mid-to-late Johns pictures and is taken as his surrogate. There is no essence of the sinister here, but the connection, which I don’t believe I am imagining, is intriguing. The other detail of note is that the frog/toad has an even number of fingers and toes. Is it a sign that it is a victim of our toxic environment, or is simply a manifestation of the artist's want or whim?

“Faculty Meeting”, 2024 the title is a sly wink at one of the banes of academic life? Having worked in academia, I was touched by the recall of the cycle of terminally deadly meetings. This causes my confidence, given his teaching history, that Obers target is intentionally laden with a jaundiced view.

“Moving in Stereo”, 2023, something of an odd-bird amounts the body of work presented, and depicting what resembles a festival, complete with a huge totemic doll being thrown around by an agitated crowd, that basks in the exuberant panoply of physiognomy, has a strong relationship to the canon of Bob Thompson.  

Then there are the works that border on portraiture. “Young Picasso” 2023,  actually seems to be based on a late Picasso drawing depicting a grizzled Picasso self-portrait at the end of his life. It can be taken as intentional irony, or as a clever homage to vitality? “Starburst”, 2023 focuses on a throbbing red sea creature trapped in a bright yellow net. And “Cotton Candy”, 2023, presents Bart Simpson’s stoned, or deranged cousin covered with the substance of the title. Overall it is primarily the thrust of  Obers paint handling, its visceral quality, that is most effective, whether squeezed, slathered, or slashed in application. WM

1. Kazakina, Katya, “A 54 Year Old History Teacher in Connecticut Just Became One of the Art Market’s Fastest Rising Stars”, Art Detective, ArtNet News Pro, August 5, 2022.
2. from the artist’s page on GNYP Gallery (Berlin and Antwerp) website.


Edward Waisnis

Edward Waisnis is an artist and filmmaker. Additionally, he is the Producer of two Quay Brothers films, Through the Weeping Glass and Unmistaken Hands, as well as having overseen the facilitation of their 2012 MoMA retrospective. His writing has appeared in Art New England, COVER, ARTextreme and STROLL.

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