Not acquainted with the work of Robert Overby? Here’s a chance to start. If you live in Chicago you can currently see two stunning examples of this still under-appreciated artist’s work (which isn’t surprising, since not only did Overby die in 1993, he stopped showing his artwork in commercial contexts early on in his art career). Concrete Screen Door, 1970, now part of the Art Institute of Chicago’s permanent collection, is now on view in the Modern Wing, and Two Window Wall Map, 1972 has just been installed as part of a group show of gallery artists in the back half of Rhona Hoffman Gallery in the West Loop.
Born in 1935 in Harvey, Illinois, Overby attended the School of the Art Institute in Chicago in the mid-1950s and later moved to Los Angeles, where he worked as a graphic designer and taught advertising and graphic design. Whereas artists like Gordon Matta Clark took a surgical approach to architectural materiality, slicing into buildings in order to unearth new and previously impossible perspectives, Overby focused on the outer layer: making latex casts of building facades and canvas “maps” of building interiors that functioned simultaneously as images and recordings. In a 2000 Freize review of Overby’s retrospective at the UCLA Hammer Museum, Charles La Belle described the artist as “specializing in a brand of corrupted (he called it ‘Baroque’) Minimalism.” Writes La Belle:
“He instilled a highly personal, poetic, and social content into what were basically reductive, process-oriented works; marrying pure materials such as rubber, lead, canvas, concrete, resin, and wood to banal objects and abject spaces. All manner of crappy, dirty, broken things formed the subject of his work: socks and handkerchiefs, shattered windows and splintered doors, bondage masks, beaver shots, coat-hangers, cans, belly-buttons, and man-hole covers all cropped up during the high point of his production in the 1970s. With his been-down-so-long-it-looks-like-up-to-me sensibility Overby wasnâ€™t afraid to crawl in the gutter and the resultant work refused to accommodate itself to the expectations of market or spectator.”
Overby’s 2000 Hammer retrospective generated lots of attention and several follow-up exhibitions at galleries and smaller museums over the following couple of years, but for now, those who wish to learn more about Overby’s work will have to check with their local museum to see if any of this artist’s works are in its collections. Chicagoans have an opportunity to see two very good examples on public view right now; hopefully one day the Art Institute or the MCA may acquire one of Overby’s more spectacular (if such a word can be applied to this low-key grunge minimalist) latex pieces as well.