Cast of one
'About When' is a terse but appropriate title for an exhibition that reeks of melancholy and times past. Deriving from the title of a sculpture that has now disappeared, it is also highly appropriate in another way, since almost everything about Robert Overby seems to have disappeared.
A successful Los Angeles graphic designer (he designed a logotype for Toyota which is still used today), Overby turned to art in 1969 aged 34, and made some very evocative Post-Minimalist sculpture. But his later painting never recaptured his early success, and when he died relatively young in 1993 he was totally obscure. It is only in the past 10 years that his star has risen again.
The exhibition centres on latex casts of architectural elements, which inevitably make one think of Rachel Whiteread. It's unlikely, though, that Overby was an influence on her, so marginal was he when she was emerging, but perhaps both of them were drawn to Bruce Nauman, who made the very Whitereadian Cast of the Space Underneath My Chair (1966-68). Overby ranges about widely in a way rather similar to Nauman: the show opens with some very Duchampian curios and concludes with small paintings which ape the styles of Old and Modern Masters.
The highlight of the exhibition is the spellbinding East Room with 2 Windows, Third Floor, a cast Overby took in August 1971 from a burned and abandoned house.
Dark with atmospheric areas of rust and dirt, it still carries fragments of the white paint wrenched off the wall when the cast was removed; while two yawning holes where the windows stood make the rubber sag dreadfully at the bottom like deep bags under eyes, only adding to the sense of sorrow and decrepitude.
But East Room notwithstanding, Overby had a dry comic wit which comes through in his penchant for trickery. Nothing is as it seems: the stench of age and compacted heaviness in East Room emanates from a mere sheet of latex, while Three Plywood Sheets are latex made to look like plywood, and turned at the corners as if they were pictures. It all has the aspect of the fairground haunted house, sliding uncertainly between comic grotesque and palpable fear.
'About When' transcends a conventional commercial gallery exhibition and has the strength of a museum presentation, but assessing Overby is difficult.
The Duchampian curios - treacly casts of socks - are certainly shameless derivations, and though the latex casts look very persuasive today, one wonders how they were received at the time. The technique of casting found objects had a force and distinctiveness in the 1960s and 70s that it has lost, now that it is just one among many other methods available to artists.
Overby was certainly out of step with his contemporaries in New York. Perhaps snobbish about his career in graphic design, a number of them objected to his work and pressured his dealer into cancelling a planned solo show - the first of some serious blows for the artist. Today, however, Overby looks brilliant and prescient - the more so because of his wide interests. Apparently he had three great loves: art, graphic design, and model aircraft. Next time, I'd like an exhibition of the lot.
Morgan Falconer is a writer in London