New Again

Formalism's endless possibilities are on display at Rule and Studio Aiello.

More and more, it seems to me that nearly all current contemporary art can trace its impetus directly back to the 1960s and '70s. I guess that's why almost everything today looks like it could have been created back then. This is not a negative appraisal of the current situation; it's simply an undeniable conclusion.

Flip through art magazines, or run around to the galleries, art centers and museums, and you'll see that I'm right. You'll notice that just like the art world of a quarter-century ago, contemporary practice on the so-called cutting edge can be broadly divided into three types: conceptual art, neo-pop (some of which is also conceptual) and -- get this -- old-fashioned formalist abstraction.

This means that formalism, ranging from more-is-more abstract expressionism to less-is-more minimalism, has become a kind of perpetual vanguard. It's a seemingly oxymoronic situation, but nonetheless, formalism remains as relevant as any aesthetic approach out there right now.

"PA III PS6," by Mary Obering, egg tempera and gold 
leaf on gessoed panel.
"PA III PS6," by Mary Obering, egg tempera and gold leaf on gessoed panel.
"Room for PJ," by Haze Diedrich, oil on canvas.
"Room for PJ," by Haze Diedrich, oil on canvas.

Details

Mary Obering: Recent Paintings
Through January 24, Rule Gallery, 111 Broadway, 303-777-9473 somewhere in between
Extended through January 24, Studio Aiello, 3563 Walnut Street, 303-297-8166

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It's no mystery as to why: Formalism is a straightforward way to approach art, inexhaustible in its possibilities. Simply put, for a formalist, painting is about paint and sculpture is about sculpture, and so on. So there's no need in such a program -- though some artists do it anyway -- to include other intellectual content. This is formalism's real strength, because such non-aesthetic things can get in the way of simply looking at art, forcing viewers to also have to think about it.

Another reason for the longevity of formalism is that its pure visual appeal makes it popular with collectors. In order to buy a formalist piece, collectors only have to like the way it looks; they don't have to agree with what it's trying to say, because it isn't saying anything.

These issues are brought to mind by Rule Gallery's Mary Obering: Recent Paintings, the most formalist of the current crop of formalist shows in town. The simply composed paintings are gorgeous, and the installation is elegant; the small works are sparely arranged in Rule's entry space and main room. This is Obering's third solo at Rule, and it allows the formerly Denver-based painter to continue as a presence on the local art scene despite splitting her time between New York and Italy.

Obering was born in Shreveport, Louisiana, in 1937. After studying psychology at Radcliffe and working for CBS in New York, she arrived in Denver with her husband in the early '60s. Swept up in the free spirit of the times, she went back to school -- something that was very uncommon then for a thirty-something woman -- and earned her bachelor of fine arts degree at the University of Denver in 19714. Her work from this period, not surprisingly, was closely akin to that of former DU art professor Beverly Rosen.

But Rosen wasn't the only established Colorado artist doing minimalism and geometric abstraction at the time; the heavy-duty scene also included Herbert Bayer, George Woodman, David Yust, Angelo DiBenedetto and Clark Richert. These Colorado artists -- along with Obering, who was then just emerging -- were doing work that was perfectly in tune with international art currents of the time, especially with the minimalists of the New York School, a group that Obering would soon plug into.

Her BFA and divorce papers in hand, Obering split for Italy with her young daughter in tow. While there, she met Carl Andre, one of the most prominent minimalist sculptors around. She moved to the Big Apple shortly after their meeting, and Andre provided her access to the key figures in the New York School. Andre also introduced Obering to the late Donald Judd, with whom she developed an especially close relationship.

Obering's work, even when she was here in Denver, was stylistically akin to that of Andre and Judd and the other minimalists, so when she arrived in New York, she was ideally prepared to enter the art scene. The ideas she put forward in the 1970s were very au courant, as she believed surfaces should be flat, colors evenly blended and lines straight. And as Mary Obering: Recent Paintings reveals, things have changed little for her over the intervening decades.

In Rule's intimate entry space are three closely related paintings: "Sing Song," "On Dancer" and "Temporale Reale," all of which are done in the Italian-style materials of egg tempera and gold leaf on gessoed panels. Each takes the form of a small horizontal rectangle that's had its top left corner notched out. The paint and leaf are very flat and the surfaces are smooth, but in a sense these paintings can be seen as bas-reliefs, because Obering also painted the thick sides, making them important elements of the compositions. The odd shapes and three-dimensionality bring her work into the arena of post-minimalism.

In the main room are some paintings that are even more architectural, taking on more baroque shapes. These paintings, including "PA III PS4" and "PA III PS6," have six sides, but they aren't symmetrical hexagons. Instead, they're flattened square cubes, and Obering adds the painted lines needed to fully carry out the illusion. She has written that these shaped canvases were inspired by the mosaic paving she saw at the Piazza Armerina in Sicily, hence the letters "PA" in the titles. Like the paintings in the entry, these "PA" pieces also have thick, painted sides that make them even more complicated in appearance.

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