Having established himself in LA during the sixties as a highly successful and award-winning graphic designer with credits for huge companies like IBM, CBS, Boeing, and MGM (as well as LACMA), it wasn’t until 1969, in his mid-thirties, that Robert Overby switched gears away from advertising and decided to become an artist. When the switch happened it happened fast and opened a floodgate of parallel outpourings. The trigger was actually a job for CBS in which Overby was hired as an art-buyer. He immersed himself in the challenge but the budget was prohibitive for the kind and size of works he was after, so his solution was to paint the paintings himself. That lit a fire inside that launched him on his way into the artist’s life.
Reacting to the range of work he was looking at and researching, Overby cultivated a deliberate diversity of approaches, subjects, and media early on, rejecting the expectations and convenience of signature style in favor of an exuberant multiplicity. The surprising range of his production over the subsequent years, until his early death at the age of fifty-eight, remains the most profound quality of his practice, mostly for the underlying connectedness it paradoxically describes.
Perhaps his most enduring single achievement embodies this notion best, bringing together his art and design practices in what’s referred to as his “red book,” Robert Overby: 336 to 1, August 1973 – July 1969, which he self-published in 1974 and which included, in reverse chronological order, images of every work he made during the four-year period indicated in its title.
Still relatively obscure, he continues to be something of an artist’s artist. Any opportunity to see his work in person is exciting. The current show of Overby’s paintings presents a relatively narrow group and should be considered as only one through-line within the contemporaneously produced scope of the artist’s work, ranging from latex and concrete castings to abstract and figurative paintings. As a painter, he is probably best known for works like those shown here that include explicit, sometimes pornographic depictions of naked women and often converge with his amazing, sustained interest in S&M and bondage figures.
There is an X-rated Rosenquist, Pop-thing happening in a couple of the more pastiche-y, collage-logic, mash-up paintings and drawings, but these are less interesting and less jarring—less utterly gripping than the more spatially straightforward paintings of single figures.
Robert Overby, Stroke II, 1973, Oil on canvas , 48 x 36 inches; Courtesy of Marc Selwyn Gallery, Los Angeles.
Stroke II, 1973, is a truncated frontal view from shoulders to knees of a topless woman, hands (tied?) behind her back, wearing reflective black briefs—i.e. fetish rubber wear—that concentrates contrast in the center like a fist or black hole with great gravitational pull. The two strokes of the title seem to me to refer to the two central highlights daubed on her crotch. The background yellow is acrid in a caution-I-can’t-get-enough kind of way. The soft swells of breast and belly and thigh are perfect, exactly as you hope they’d feel. (Not quite as much can be said for another, larger torso from the same year that is strangely pocked and mottled with cloud formations.)
The whole body glows, golden, and I wouldn’t be able to look away if it weren’t for Black Hands, 1977, to its right, a view from breast to hip of a woman’s naked, yellow torso with jet black hands and arms catching pale blue highlights that should indicate long-sleeve gloves (latex, leather, silk?) but hug anatomy so tight (you can see the curve of cuticles) to appear more integrated like skin. What the hands are doing is notational, left unpainted and ambiguous: the right hand holds a long, thick needle, I think, from which a cord extends down and into a pointed iron-like object held in the other hand. (Maybe my inability to decipher the activity betrays my innocence in these matters.) The cord is like a rat’s tail. The surgery would be sinister if it weren’t so gingerly suspended and graceful. Again with the jolt of yellow, this time warmer and less biting, rubbed nearly completely over the body.
In general, Overby’s paint is thin and dry, seemingly rubbed and blended not unlike chalk pastel. Pencil under drawings show through. There is Vaseline on the lens and there may as well be on the latex.
The placement of nipples, lightly sketched underneath in graphite, is important and economically descriptive of volume, as are the ripples along the axial seam of a flesh-colored latex rubber face mask that is depicted in Pink Head, 1974-77, the most disarming and aggressive fetish emblem, but also the most iconic image of the group. Pink Head has no nose. Its lips are generic and painted red onto the rubber, wrinkles catching the light where breath suctions it in. Its narrow eye-holes are crooked and unaligned; only one eyeball peers through but so much is contained there. The neck ends abruptly, or else it pokes out of a hole in the ground.
S&M, bondage, fetish, protective chemical gear, Halloween costume, and skintight superhero apparel all factor in, with their attendant vectors of association. But so too does the otherwise unsexy knowledge of Overby’s concurrent sculptural experiments with latex in which he cast the relief surfaces of architectures by painting coats of liquid latex on the exterior and interiors of houses and then peeling them off when dry. The two parallel projects in painting and sculpture come to bear on each other in an idiosyncratic way that gets at the heart of Overby’s rubberized sensibility.
(Image on top right: Robert Overby, Black Hands, 1977 , oil on canvas, 48 x 61 1/2 inches; Courtesy of the Artist and Marc Selwyn Fine Art)