First glances can be deceiving and magically, the more you look at these complex paintings, the more you see. Carolyn Oberst invites you directly into her dreams through the Back Story Series, an exhibition of eleven oil paintings, that create intricate visual poetry which is suggestive yet obliges the viewer to fill in the blanks. Inspired by the past, present, and future, Oberst allows the outside world to affect her, flow through her, and trickle onto the canvas. To create the composition, which Oberst refers to as “the structure that you hang the paint on,” she works from her subconscious, letting her mind guide her hand in improvisation. What follows are paintings filled with interlocking abstractions of human figures, geometric shapes and inanimate subjects of daily life, all in surreal hues.
However, being improvisational does not exclude Oberst from being intentional. In the Back Story Series, Oberst displays a masterful use of shape and colour. Notably, just before this body of work, Oberst, eager to create a sense of space, experimented with paper and wood cutouts. As her practice evolved, so did her ability to actualize space. Rather than creating physical depth with mixed media, Oberst now creates the illusion of depth with flat paint. Her combination of organic and inorganic forms adds even further texture to the work, combining structure with the flow. The eye darts in and out of the painting, entering and exiting the atmosphere that Oberst has so skillfully created.
Oberst does not consider this body of work to be figurative. The perceived figures are merely symbols, signifiers, abstracted forms in the image of human beings, used as shapes for a composition. That is not to say that Oberst herself does not know the identity of each figure. Whether a nod to Manet, like in Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most, a cultural icon, or a personal idol, her references are subtle and personal. She prefers to keep this anonymous to the viewer and does so through clever means; the figures are flat and reduced down to the most minimal detail needed and never painted using flesh tones. Oberst explains the “action and interaction [of her painting’s abstractions] suggest, but do not define, possible narratives.” This is a through-line in Oberst’s practice; she prefers to engage the audience in their own perception of the forms, patterns and references that she paints.
“She prefers to engage the audience in their own perception of the forms, patterns and references that she paints”
Perhaps the most striking aspect of Oberst’s atmospheres is her mesmerizing use of colour which is as strategic as it is beautiful. Oberst prides herself on never using paint straight from the tube, and, rather, mixing every single colour to her perfect hue. She then uses each of them in elements all over different parts of the canvas. This clever method, driven by her subconscious, connects seemingly irrelevant forms into one eclectic but harmonious scene.
The colour combinations and faint details that stick out from different eras, a retro sweater here, a contemporary dress there, contribute to a feeling of time warp. There is a timelessness to the paintings; they feel from another time yet fresh and relevant all at once. The timelessness of the work parallels the timelessness of the artist herself. A proud 74-year-old woman, Oberst often jokes about people's shock in finding out that a woman of her age has created such relevant and interesting paintings. In our society, age is often associated with irrelevance, which Oberst rejects. Individuals of more advanced age are often overlooked. This unfortunate perspective is pervasive enough that, in Oberst's experience, people find themselves surprised that an older woman created art that they enjoy. By inserting herself into cultural conversations through her work, Oberst challenges these outdated notions and brings warranted attention to her herself and her peers. In that way, Oberst becomes like shapes within the Back Story Series. The forms and colour work together to construct a purposefully vague narrative, piquing a visual interest rather than telling a story. The figures in the paintings are unidentifiable and therefore, like Oberst herself, cannot be judged by the viewer’s first impression. The final relationships between individual elements are left open-ended and often lead by aesthetic, leaving the overall interpretation at the viewers’ discretion. With so much to interpret and so much diversity in experience and assumption, no two individuals will come to the same conclusion.
Oberst has shown in solo and group shows across New York City and the US including the Westbeth Gallery, Chashama’s Time Square Gallery plus a one-person show at their lobby space at 45 Broadway, Denise Bibro Gallery in NYC, The Brattleboro Museum, Brattleboro, VT, Limner Gallery, Hudson, NY, with Artifact Gallery at the Miami Basel Art Fair and, Internationally, with Vit Gallery in Seoul, S. Korea. She was selected for a one-month visual artist’s residency in Oaxaca, Mexico. Her work is held in two corporate and numerous private collections. She lives and works in New York City.
Cover image: Carolyn Oberst, "Signals from Parts Unknown”, 2020, oil on canvas, 60.96 x 76.2 centimetres, 24 x 30 inches. Courtesy of the Artist.