Two Sublime

The Rule gallery proves that Mary Obering and Dale Chisman make quite a pair.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, in the up-and-coming neighborhood around First Avenue and Broadway, a steady stream of visitors found their way through the doors of the Rule Modern and Contemporary Gallery. At the same time, a client in the gallery's back office was making a purchase. At one point, when the place got particularly crowded, I caught the eye of busy director Robin Rule. "Build it, and they will come," she said with a shrug and a smile.

Currently, and as usual, Rule is showing two unrelated exhibits at the same time, and the two artists represented make a particularly nice comparison because they are essentially opposites.

In the main gallery is the marvelous Mary Obering, Recent Paintings, which showcases geometric abstractions made in Italy by Obering, a New York artist with substantial personal and professional ties to Denver. In the small gallery in the back, the engaging Dale Chisman highlights gestural abstract prints by a Denver artist with substantial personal and professional ties to New York.

"Light Dark Duel," by Mary Obering, mixed-media painting.
"Light Dark Duel," by Mary Obering, mixed-media painting.
Print from the "Voz" series, by Dale Chisman.
Print from the "Voz" series, by Dale Chisman.

Obering was born in 1937 and raised in Shreveport, Louisiana. In the 1950s she attended Hollins College in Virginia and then entered graduate school at Radcliffe College near Boston. Her field of study at the time was not fine art, but psychology; while at Radcliffe, she worked with behaviorist B. F. Skinner. But Obering was already interested in art, which she pursued as a hobby. After leaving school, she got married and moved to New York, where she worked for CBS. In the mid-1960s she came to Denver with her husband and seemingly settled into the life of a housewife, mom and Junior Leaguer.

But Obering's interest in art intervened, and she went back to school when she was in her thirties, acquiring an MFA from the University of Denver in 1971. At first she worked in sculpture with former DU professor Roger Kotoske, but eventually she turned to painting.

Hard-edged abstraction of the sort preferred by Obering was all the rage around here when she graduated from DU. (The popularity of this form is clearly revealed in two recent shows: the first half of Colorado Abstraction at the Arvada Center, which was on last fall, and the second section of the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art's Vanguard Art in Colorado, which closed right before Christmas.)

Obering's career was just taking off when she left DU, but her marriage was breaking up. That summer, she left her husband and went to Italy with her young daughter. As a stroke of luck, Obering met another American there, minimalist master Carl Andre. The two became fast friends. (Obering's continuing friendship with the famous sculptor and her more recent friendship with Rule led directly to the show at the gallery this past summer that featured Andre's work.) Soon after returning from Italy, Obering left Denver for good and relocated to New York.

Andre gave Obering entree into the New York art world, and she soon found herself at the center of the then-still-burgeoning minimalist scene. She met and became especially close to the late Donald Judd, dean of New York minimalism. According to Rule, Judd's later painted work owes a debt of gratitude to Obering's style. But surely Judd exerted an influence on Obering as well, particularly in encouraging her modular approach to abstraction, which is akin to his use of repetition. But Obering is not, and was not, a classic minimalist. Her work has a decidedly decorative component, especially with regard to the somewhat luxurious and varied materials she uses. And though her paintings seem to be simple, and therefore minimal, they are actually very complex. They are elaborately conceived and executed, which is in contrast to the smooth and monochromatic surfaces associated with signature minimalism.

Mary Obering marks the second time the artist has been the subject of a solo presentation at Rule. (Four years ago, Denver was introduced to her work in a retrospective of paintings done between 1978 and 1996.) The show begins just inside the front door, in the intimately scaled entry space at Rule. In a didactic panel painted directly on the wall, Obering dedicates the show to the memory of Robert Qualls, an old friend from Denver.

Adjacent and opposite to the dedication, Rule has displayed a trio of just-completed pieces that cogently lay out Obering's program, both in terms of the materials she incorporates and the reductivism of her simple compositions. A fourth, installed when the show opened, has since been removed.

Obering's newer paintings, most of them done in 1999, are simultaneously related to her classic work and clearly different. The most obvious difference is her somewhat surprising use of natural stone cut into thin panels in lieu of more traditional paints or pigments. She created these paintings in Italy, where the stone was quarried, and she uses the natural abstractions in the rocks' veneers to stand in for painted passages.

Though her use of stone is a relatively recent development, Obering has long employed clay as paint, which is some way anticipates this newer material. In addition to stone and clay, she uses tempera and gold leaf.

"Blue Plain" and "Brown Sky," hung side by side, are both done in egg tempera and gold leaf on gessoed panel; each has a buff-colored limestone panel as well. Obering has divided each horizontal panel into a pair of squares, which are then divided into a pair of horizontal bars on the right side and a pair vertical ones on the left. The titles and the overall horizontal shapes make oblique references to the landscape, another longtime interest of hers.

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