John Obuck

Young Hoffman Gallery

In the last two years John Obuck has begun to build the forms he previously painted in the center of his canvases. Maneuvering between painting and sculpture, between real and depicted space, between historical and up-to-the-minute styles, Obuck remains attached to geometric forms and to a crisp, black and white palette. He establishes a complex relationship between the filigreed patterns he paints and the volumetric geometries he builds so that the simple geometric elements are rendered ambiguous, faceted as they are by painted decorations that comment on and undo their structural integrity. This skillful playing with dimensions recalls the idea that Picasso’s analytical Cubist paintings could have been reassembled into three-dimensional objects.

In this exhibition Obuck showed some painted wooden hybrids which have become figurative. This capitulation to a current imperative results in wall pieces that look like Constructivist work run amok: Constructivism with a lower case c and a high degree of invention and eccentricity. Installed high on the wall like those video cameras mounted in shops to photographically apprehend thieves, a thrusting black and white piece becomes a Diver complete with bathing trunks, while zebra-striped Pegasus loops away from the wall with baroque élan. Its placement is a neat parody—an estheticized, mythologized version of the moose-head over the mantel. The information Obuck offers in his titles alters one’s perception of the work. Once captioned, objects that are in fact abstract, dynamic intrusions into space seem like attempts to freeze movement by resorting to gestures that are as conventional as they are recognizable. With titles, these sculptures begin to resemble stick figures. At their most successful they suggest sculptural realizations of El Lissitzky’s New Man from Victory over the Sun; at their least successful, wooden toys.

In his more ambitious painting constructions Obuck jettisons the figure so that there is a sensation of incompleteness, of reliquary boxes without relics, or of stage sets for narratives that are evoked more by titles than by the actual forms included in the containers. Analogies with games and play are seductive in describing Obuck’s work because of the images that previously dominated his paintings—game tables, checkerboards, and dice. The frames in those works often mimicked or contradictedthe images of objects depicted, but in these more substantial constructions the relationship between the painted and the constructed is less playful and predictable. The wooden frame becomes the painter’s surface, taking over and even covering the face of the canvas, while the figures are replaced by a stylized, schematic profile which Obuck uses for a variety of compositional and subjective motivations. In Sphinx, for example, this geometric profile, larger than life, bisects the four-foot-tall construction separating one side from the other. The profile also appears as a stand-in for the artist and is sometimes cut out to reveal the canvas, the painting that lurks under the wooden facade. The artist shuffles metaphors of house and tomb in these boxes that are about self-containment and self-preservation. An enigmatic rolling-pin shape inscribed on the surface of the paintings is just one of the cards in Obuck’s nonspecific iconographical deck; others are a protruding, sexy knob and a sculptural handle that crisscrosses itself. Actually, all of these seemingly random elements are organized with impressive rigor and deliberation. Forever qualifying the play between painting and object, Obuck cuts out, builds on, paints over, and boards up his formal and perceptual puzzles.

Tongue-Tied, a long, narrow box, reinforces this reluctance or inability to give up specific meaning. Despite its lack of color, this pristine white container presents an active pattern of shadows cast by a fringe of those same silhouetted profiles and by a central tangle of entwined Plexiglas coils, but it remains bound and gagged. Unlike the Neo-Expressionists, Obuck, who for the sake of historicist consistency would have to be labeled a Neo-Constructivist, boxes up his emotions and restrains his painted gestures and personal marks, subjugating expression to cool, ornamental geometry.

Judith Russi Kirshner