Memory, Forms of Expression, and Questioning Proscribed Codes of Behavior

The Artwork of Carolyn Oberst

By Anthony Huffman, Independent Curator and Critic

Carolyn Oberst’s robust body of painting, drawing, and sculpture has interrogated the construction of memory, patterning and nostalgia, themes of self-fashioning, and how codes of behavior are embedded in all forms of visual media. While historically she has used vintage toys as a source of inspiration, in her more recent work she incorporates icons culled from contemporary culture. 

In the series “Back Story” (2014-19), she examines ideas about memory processing and forms of expression while also wrestling with questions about representation and the role that media plays in structuring societal attitudes and norms, from coloring books and paper dolls to magazines and films. For the works in this series, there is no overarching narrative structure—a visual strategy deployed to engage the viewer in his or her interpretation of the constructed pastiche of figures, forms, and references. These motifs can be combined and re-combined to arrive at distinctly different outcomes based on an individual’s experiences and assumptions. 

Two of her most recent painting illustrates these concepts.

“From What You Know to What You Need to Find”, 2019, oil on canvas, 48”h. x 60”w.

“From What You Know to What You Need to Find”, 2019, oil on canvas, 48”h. x 60”w.

 In From What You Know to What You Need to Find (2019), figurative vignettes and patterned shapes drift and commingle across the flat surface of the painting, seeming to be set within the recesses of the mind. The strategic juxtaposition of organic and geometric forms in her composition serves as one way of visualizing the internal impulses of the mind. Reason and order are represented by the shapes and the amorphous shards stand in for past subjective experiences. Regarding the figures, Oberst plays with how profile, contour, posture, and gesture have the ability to communicate traits about anonymous subjects. Some of the figures, as if excerpted from larger narratives, have more defined features than others, which points to the formation of memories and the recollection processes. The shades of pink, blue, and green used to define silhouettes of the abstracted figures are comparable to the palettes commonly used in children’s storybooks, imparting a whimsical sense to the work. In fact, the seated male figure with arms crossed is situated within a fantastical plot of forest, deep in thought and almost receding into the dense thicket of trees. Along these same lines, the central female character whose Rapunzelian hair merges with the blue undulating line that diagonally cuts across the canvas, conjures up ideas about stream of consciousness and the articulation of thoughts and feelings. Given Oberst’s thematic interests and the title of this painting, the female figure encourages viewers to consider the necessary balance between raw, unmediated expression and more rationalized, guarded modes of communication.   

“How We Begin to Remember”, 2019, oil on canvas, 48”h. x 60”w.

“How We Begin to Remember”, 2019, oil on canvas, 48”h. x 60”w.

The painting, How We Begin to Remember (2019), notably contains a greater variety of colors and shapes, creating a strong vibrant effect. Characters appear in repetitive or sequential orders, as if playing through a filter in the subconscious; though each iteration is rendered in a slightly different hue. These formal elements call to mind cartoons, comics, films, and the entertainment industry more broadly. In particular, the use of squares in this composition alludes to the screen—both cinema and television. Contemporary cultural icons have been inserted or spliced into the work, exploring how absorption of media at all ages has an indelible impact on conception of self and others. Oberst is interested in how analog and digital media have the capacity to re-affirm or challenge societal expectations and conventions about gender, identity, and behavior. As such, the banding of jagged edges—reminiscent of sprocket perforations on film strips—might be read as a rupture in dominant narratives produced and circulated in contemporary visual media. 


PANDORA’S NEW BOX

By Lyle Rexer, NY Based Writer; curator and art critic. 

In a seventeenth-century Dutch engraving, I find what seems to me an image of Surrealism and its ambiguous liberations.  The mythical Pandora stands in front of a Dutch doorway, offering her infamous box (more like a chalice).  Out of it come virtues and vices in equal measure, tiny winged creatures that fly up to heaven or spread out to populate the Earth and take dominion everywhere, an eruption of archaic anxieties into the bourgeois Dutch world.  

Surrealism is the great Pandora’s box of modern art, still disgorging its wonderful and demonic contents, its unthinkable permissions, to artists like Carolyn Oberst.  The Surrealist project was not just politics by other means -- a naked woman at your  front door for no good reason except to disturb your day.  It was psychic and artistic repatriation.  Within the space of the painting or the confines of the object, the artist-provocateur unhinged images, signs, and materials from their conventional significances and let them float free, free to form new associations, more authentic and perhaps universal.  I take it as an axiom that the greater the detail and naturalistic fidelity of a Surrealist image, the less it has to do with the so-called real world. The point was not to record dreams but to provoke them.  In liberating the elements of the picture, Ernst, de Chirico, Duchamp and the rest, liberated the artist and the viewer as well.  We are free to walk the world and receive its strange gifts, the readymade markers of our identity.

Carolyn Oberst seldom played with dolls as a child, but true to her Surrealist precursors, she found them when she needed them, as the occasion for her most powerful images.  Like the hidden signs of a new melancholy that forced themselves on de Chirico in the streets of Paris, the dolls have offered themselves to Oberst, theatrically, in tableaux, with the details of the scenes left blank, to be filled in by the goddess of psychic chance.

For Oberst, the dolls supply points of origin, access to the gendered past of a woman and the engendering past of an artist.  I am thinking especially of, “My Room”, in which the doll, floating above the central image, seems to draw back a curtain on an archetypal childhood scene.  

“My Room”, 2000, oil on canvas in vintage wood frame, 17.5”h.x16.5”w.

“My Room”, 2000, oil on canvas in vintage wood frame, 17.5”h.x16.5”w.

But this is not Tinkerbell welcoming us to the Magic Kingdom.  The immaculate middle-class bedroom, with its Renoir prints and pink carpet, conspires to push the child artist into a corner, where she paints on carefully laid newspapers.  The title should be, “Don’t Make a Mess”.

How the doll provoked this recollection (and took on the classic role of a fetish -- the projection and deflection of a fear) is a long story, but worth summarizing for the light it sheds on the origins of this art.  It involves the bonnet, shoes, and fabric of the dress.  Their reference to the style of what would be the generation of Oberst’s grandparents seems to have triggered the recognition in the artist of a chain of repression through which Victorian proprieties gave rise to the tyranny of middle-class taste in the 1950’s.  The curtain raised by the doll is one of heavily patterned wallpaper, a curtain on the century that shaped her -- and us.   The doll, says Oberst,unlocked all the anger.

Everything in the pictures flows from the dolls: settings, wallpaper patterns (redolent of period and social class), even the frames, which Oberst collects and uses to amplify her images.  In her work we can see clearly how Surrealism transformed the notion of art making from creation to automatism and assemblage. Oberst is a collector, not so much of objects but of impressions, apprehensions, and subtle disturbances.  Her projects come together, as she puts it, both physically and psychically.  The mind is a laboratory of recombination and a theater of re-enactments, as Duchamp understood so well.

The other aspect that marks the lineage of these paintings is their ambivalence.  They seem to oscillate between irreconcilable poles of feeling, like that image of Magritte’s in which a midnight street supports a daylight sky.  “After Midnight”, imagines the moment after Cinderella’s exile from the ball, as she stands disheveled and stained in a ruined garden. There can be no awareness of innocence without the fall, no absolute divorce of pleasure from pain.  The memory of absent pleasure is pain, just as surely as the absence of pain is pleasure.  

“After Midnight”, 2000, oil on canvas in wood frame, 28.25”h.x18”w.

“After Midnight”, 2000, oil on canvas in wood frame, 28.25”h.x18”w.

“Jamaican Doll”, originates in an impulse toward color and pattern, shaped by the myth of the tropics as a place of harmony between natives and nature.  But the impulse is deflected by the doll’s image, a projection of fear and oppression. The wicker frame, painted with flowers feels like a cage.  It’s a lethal souvenir for the tourist trade, a worm in the mescal bottle, moths in the alpaca sweater.

“Jamaican Doll”, 2000, oil on canvas in painted wicker frame, 31”h.x21”w.

“Jamaican Doll”, 2000, oil on canvas in painted wicker frame, 31”h.x21”w.

I would characterize Oberst’s earlier work as Magic Realism, whose roots lie in folk art with its easily available strategies.  In these paintings, however, she has found a dowsing rod of obsession that enables her to tap the wellspring of unconscious conflict and correlation.  It’s an optical unconscious, to borrow a phrase from Walter Benjamin, not active until the work of art itself, the image of a doll, galvanizes it.  Pandora’s box is there to be opened if, like Oberst, you are lucky enough to recognize it on your doorstep -- and are compelled by a need beyond desire to lift the lid.

Lyle Rexer is a contributor to Photograph Magazine and has written for many others: Raw Vision; Art in America; Aperture; The New York Times; Modern Painters; Parkett; Tate Etc. Books include: The Edge of Vision: The Rise of Abstraction in Photography; Jonathan Lerman: The Drawings of An Artist with Autism; How to Look At Outsider Art; Photography’s Antiquarian Avant-Garde: The New Wave in Old Processes.

Awards include:  Rhodes Scholar, Arts Writers Grant Program, Creative Capital Foundation, Andy Warhol Foundation, Oxford University, Merton College, University of Michigan

He is on the faculty The School of Visual Arts in the BFA Photography and Video, MFA Photography, Video and Related Media, and the MPS Fashion Photography Departments.