John Obuck

Young-Hoffman Gallery

John Obuck is full of tricks. Formal jugglings create optical illusions and recombine geometrics in a way that compositional transformations sometimes seem to be puns on the painter’s own elements. However, these figure/ ground deceptions and distortions do not seem contrived, for Obuck’s esthetic legerdemains also seem irrational as though the products of lucky accidents. The overall effect is dual: orderly, because of consistent, crisp, black figures on white fields; confusing, because these figures function as both problems and solutions.

Obuck constructs paintings and paints small constructions. In the former, black frames bow, thicken and thin, cut across corners (as well as square them within one piece), and frequently have short legs that protrude, from each corner, towards either the viewer or the wall. The constructions, fashioned mostly from triangles and rectangles of wood, are painted to resemble the “puzzling” planes that appear in the paintings.

Obuck’s antic muse has led him away from a latter-day cubist dissection and resynthesis of form, (which might have produced mere exercises in design), guiding him instead toward a coolheaded and witty equation of artmaking and existence itself: a set of puzzle parts of mysteries, with games. While he makes it clear that these games have rules—the artist’s repeated shapes—he also understands that chance may determine any outcome. Titles such as Lady Luck and Snake Eyes conjure images of card or crap games, and the “table,” framed pieces, resemble game boards.

Checkerboards, dominoes, and horseshoes reappear, as do images of tables which often repeat, though with greater complexity, the framing form. These games within games suggest that rules are subtle, that tables can turn. Indeed Obuck’s literally do, not only because we sometimes see the top of the table, sometimes the underside, but also because most of the tables, either as images or frames, are turned on their sides.

Table-turning is also an occult art. While Obuck does not seem to present himself as artist/mystic, he is a conjurer of sorts and deals with enigmas. Although his work is black and white (except for rare touches of gray and yellow), he depicts visual situations and suggests emotional states that are inconclusive—gray areas made by theconstructions’ shadows cast on the wall. The whites are brushy, for instance, but as often as not they look flat because of distance or lighting. Presto change-o! Now you see it, now you don’t.

I’m impressed with Obuck’s seductiveness. He lures, not through lyrical or sensuous beauty, but rather with a witchery that, being both wacky and staid, is tongue in cheek. Witch looks like a basketball court with a weird pyramidal, legged object—a talisman hovering above. Titles such as Blue Moon, French Kiss, Leaping Lizards, Seventh Heaven, and Trapeze II seem absurd in relation to Obuck’s imagery, but they all suggest states of suspension, elation, or excitement—circumstances that lack physical and/or emotional gravity. Appropriately, many of Obuck’s figures look weightless, as though to tell us that we shouldn’t permit his art to weigh too heavily on us.

This work is extremely civilized despite its cuteness. Its sophistication, however, is not due to superior craftsmanship, not to attunement to current eccentricities of abstraction, but rather to an original sense of irony. Some games function as initiations, and Obuck’s art seems to serve as an induction to “disillusionment,” a true picture of how nothing is what it seems to be: perspectives always change, and fortunes shift.

Joanna Frueh