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Pop Deco: Inside Urbanite Arts with Cara Ober by Baynard Woods

If you're reading this, you probably know Cara Ober primarily as a writer. At Urbanite, we think she's a hell of a writer. She’s been writing the “Eye to Eye” section in the back of the magazine since 2010 and running this E-Zine since its inception. She is a prolific blogger at BMore Art, and teaches art at Maryland Institute College of Art and Johns Hopkins University. But she is, I think it is fair to say, primarily an artist. We thought that, after years of reading her art writing in Urbanite, you might like to see where she— and part of Urbanite’s arts coverage—is coming from. Cara has taken the last several weeks off from the magazine to focus on a solo show at Civilian Art Projects in Washington, D.C., so it seemed like a good a time as any to open up our curtains and give you a peek inside our magazine.

I, too, discovered her art through her writing; I was immediately smitten with the incorporation of text into collage-like works that were still very painterly. It is very literary stuff. “It’s not surprising that most of my collectors are literary people,” Ober says. “My earlier work is definitely a collage-based style sampling from different sources, combining them into a diary-like, stream-of-consciousness paintings.”

She showed this work in Brooklyn, New York, and shortly afterwards found out she was pregnant. “I didn’t make work for a year. The creative impulse is mysterious: I’d always had this drive and it just vanished,” she says. “People told me I was creating in another way.”

In Ober’s early work, “more was more. I put everything in the paintings including the kitchen sink,” she says. But when she started to make work again, she felt that there was too much going on. “I needed to simplify,” she says. “My life as a mother was filled with these nonverbal repeated simple actions.” Ober found that interesting and decided to see how much she could eliminate and still find it interesting.

Her solution was a series of ink-drawings of Greek-style vases bearing contemporary images and phrases. To look at them, you’d think they were prints, but Ober draws them with a Micron pen. I know this because when I walked to her house to see her new work and talk about it, it looked like it would rain. I have learned to never do an interview in pen because if it rains, you’re screwed. But what I thought was a mechanical pencil was not. It was a pen. Ober suggested one of the pens she uses, to the point she says that she is obsessed with them.

I still like pencils, but her results are amazing. I saw three of these vases at Nudashank’s Paper Chasers show. There were dozens of works on paper covering every wall. The works weren’t labeled. I had no idea that Ober had any work up, and I fell in love with the drawings, partly, I admit, because they jibed so well with my own sensibility. (I’ve spent the last twenty years studying Ancient Greek; I’m just getting to the point where I am not a bumbling fool.) The exquisitely rendered Greek vase featured a woman’s hand holding a fold-out fan beside an unplugged electric fan. This was all in white relief against the rich black ink of the vase above the words “It is more important to affirm the least sincere,” and it charmed the hell out of me. Another vase shows two fierce-looking dogs positioned decoratively on either side of an oversized T-bone steak. Between that image and the Hellenized decorative patterns above and below, the legend “We had crazy fucking times till the Visa card expired,” sets the whole thing off.

“I like thinking about the idea of the domestic object as art,” Ober says. “Something that was used in a house is in a museum, devoid of context. Those vases were used to store wine or carry grain.”

In creating these vases, Ober says she was able to simplify while continuing to sample from a wide range of culture. “I’d gotten rid of color, but then I wondered if I got rid of the words and it was just the patterns if it would still be interesting.” In other words, she was going to eliminate everything but the pattern—sort of.

She didn’t want to get too clean. In fact, after the austerity of the ink vases, she was looking for something of what she calls a “painterly mess,” or a “messy alchemy.” When she dilutes the paint just right, she gets the “painterly liquid consistency” she is seeking, and, when it dries, because of the chemical balance of the paint, it acts like copper, giving both a shimmer and a greenish patina to the under-painting.

Though these paintings were supposed to be simplifications, they are, in fact, amplifications of Ober’s previous work. The vases are small, modest, ironic, and domestic; the new paintings are large and once again crammed with kaleidoscopic collisions of patterns.

“I’m a magpie,” she says. “I’m always looking and browsing, whether it is paper from a scrapbooking store or multicultural coloring books.”

She continues to use the decorative arts as source material, smashing patterns together in a grand pop art gesture where every line is clean and every pattern pure, but which, in their profusion, almost have the effect of action painting. The eye is drawn in a thousand directions.

In this mix of purity and profusion, Ober sees our contemporary decorative culture. “In many American homes, there is a rug from Turkey or a batik from Africa, pottery from Japan. This is how people decorate.”

While this kind of decoration necessarily decontextualizes the objects, Ober’s work takes it a step further. The juxtaposition of the minimal and the maximal disrupts both categories. Like Ober’s writing, her art is born of this tension, the dual sense of appreciation and appropriation, exploration and demolition, understanding and experience.

Opening Reception for Pop Deco, a Solo Show of New Paintings at Civilian Art Projects in Washington, D.C. on May 11 from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.