Robert Overby was a lot of things in his lifetime: a post-minimalist artist whose work directly anticipated aesthetic strategies by Rachel Whiteread and Seth Price; a painter of sombre landscapes, religious portraits and hot-blooded postmodern pop; a sexually explicit collagist; and a graphic designer who, we’re told, invented the Toyota logo. One thing he was not, however, was widely recognized as an artist. This is borne out by the fact that when he died in 1993, aged 57, of Hodgkin’s disease, his obituary in the Los Angeles Times highlighted an award he was given for illustrating the cover of a novel. The infrequency of Overby’s exhibitions can’t be divorced from this misconception of his practice. But neither can a resistance to stylistic fixity that runs deeper than mere restlessness.
The artist’s first European retrospective, ‘Robert Overby: Work 1969–1987’, curated by Alessandro Rabottini, currently in Geneva, will tour to GaMEC, Bergamo, this month, then to Bergen Kunsthall in Norway and Le Consortium, Dijon, France. Though it covers the central years of Overby’s production, the show doesn’t start at the beginning, as if to make clear that we could enter anywhere and discover poetic consistencies. True enough. The introductory melange of work includes murky 1974 black and white photographs of what appear to be rooftops and power lines seen through a hailstorm of darkroom abrasions; Sky Plane (1972), an ethereal oil painting in which cumuli hang above a soft, dividing layer of cloud; and Blue Screen Door (1971), an incomplete, resin and fibreglass cast of a household door that exposes the aforementioned Whiteread as not merely an admirer of Bruce Nauman. (Vacuum-formed plastic works elsewhere do the same for Price.) We don’t encounter a human figure until the next room’s Vertical Torso with Grey Edge (1973), a pastel of a female body that’s so closely cropped it is almost abstract. But it’s already been hinted that everything here, from scratches on a negative to the casting of a room, hews to bodies: to skin-like surfaces, transience and the chimera of heavenly succours.
Vertical Torso is flanked by the exhibition’s show-stopping works – extracts from the 1971 ‘Barclay House’ series in which Overby cast the interior of a building in latex. Dangling from the wall like corroded ghosts, the loose, orange-brown casts advertise everything that’s not there anymore: the skin just a shell for what gusts briefly through it. Of course, artists like Heidi Bucher, Eva Hesse and Alina Szapocznikow were coming to similar conclusions around the same time. Yet it’s Overby’s mobile practice that frequently individuates him – as when the placement of his Untitled (Monk Restoration) (1973), an over-painted version of an anonymous devotional painting, next to one of the casts serves to set his mortal concerns against an inarticulate yearning for something more, for literal restoration.
That may not be coming, so we take refuge in what the body can do while it’s still here. From the mid-1970s, Overby focused on painting, and adpoted a somewhat ambivalent attitude to quick pleasures that still related strongly to skins and surfaces. See, for example, the painting Chocolates (1974–77), which looks like a premonition of the work of David Salle, where candies float above a woman with her breasts exposed, the right-hand side of the canvas a censuring grey blank; or What else is important? (1981), luscious red lips poking through a sugary white frosting applied to a face. Perhaps it’s the funereal tenor of the rooms we passed through to reach them but, for all their juiciness and graphic-artist panache, not much here looks like it’s going to last. By the mid-1980s, his paintings – like the Rosenquist- and Salle-ish but still startlingly fresh Computer Whiz (1987), where a face fuses with another nude body amid a bright mix of superimpositions and jigsawed fragments – appear to be shifting gears, loosely forecasting shattered post-digital selfhood. Then again, hindsight is 20/20. What’s clear is that Overby was a bard of the temporary, and his facture reflect his theme. Nothing lasts. That the art market and adventurous curators say otherwise is an irony that you’d hope Overby would have appreciated.