Robert Overby, Magnetic Stretch, July 5, 1970, polyvinyl chloride and resin, 48 × 60 × 3".

Robert Overby, Magnetic Stretch, July 5, 1970, polyvinyl chloride and resin, 48 × 60 × 3".

Robert Overby

Robert Overby, Magnetic Stretch, July 5, 1970, polyvinyl chloride and resin, 48 × 60 × 3".

“Robert Overby: Works 1969–1987” provided an extraordinary opportunity to retrace the investigations into the usually unexpressed potentials of material in the work of this too-little-known artist. For Overby, who was born in 1935 and died in 1993, material was the site of all transformations; a partner to the artist, responding to his actions with its own; and—in the final analysis—a mystery, a harbinger of beauty. The exhibition, curated by Alessandro Rabottini in cooperation with the Centre d’Art Contemporain in Geneva (where the show opened), the Bergen Kunsthall in Norway (where the show is on view through October), and Le Consortium in Dijon, France (which will be the exhibition’s final stop in January 2015), featured more than fifty works from both European and American collections. Its organization documented the ways in which Overby, using media and techniques including sculpture, installations, paintings, prints, and collages, investigated the paradoxes involved in the representation of beauty and the very possibility or impossibility of its being documented—whether the beauty of the body, even in its decline, or the beauty of a setting, an architecture, expressed or expressible, sometimes through its decomposition.For beauty, as Overby reminds us, sometimes needs its opposite in order to be signified.

A good example of this contaminated beauty can be found in Pink Head, 1974–77, a painting that depicts a masked head in a latex hood the color of skin. Natural and artificial skin end up changing places, interpenetrating, dissolving into each other and becoming blurred in pictorial fiction. And then there is Door with Hole, Second Floor (From the Barclay House Series) August 4, 1971, in which inorganic matter in a state of disintegration seems animate, the eponymous door seemingly made of human skin.Bodies and architecture enter a state of reciprocal resonance in Overby’s work. The painting What Else Is Important, 1981, depicts a pair of enormous, almost swollen red lips that peer out from a face thickly covered in shaving cream. Magnetic Stretch, July 5, 1970, on the other hand, is a relief made of polyvinyl chloride and resin that seems epidermal. Again, the artist is involved with the architecture of the body, skin as surface.

In 1969, Overby began experimenting more directly with material processes by making casts of doors and building facades. Taking an approach that was both casual and informed, he used rubber, latex, and concrete as vehicles for expressing change and its consequences, registered in matter. In this way, his sculpture became a means for recording the passage of time without freezing it. Blue Screen Door, Concrete Screen Door with Hole, Bricks, Large Corner, and Concrete Screen Door Handle, all 1971, for example, are works whose surfaces present themselves as evidence of the effects of obsolescence. Many have written that Overby approached sculpture as if it were photography, but I would say instead that he understood the specific potential of certain materials and, therefore, of sculpture—namely their capacity to record themselves. And so he found a way to maintain the memory of phenomena experienced or endured without immobilizing them.

Marco Tagliafierro

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.