Cory Oberndorfer’s art seems to be all about indulgence. And it may well be.
Since earning his master of fine arts degree from American University six years ago, the 39-year-old painter has made a name for himself in the local art scene, not as a tortured abstract expressionist or passionate polemicist but as a purveyor of extravagantly hedonistic — yet highly relatable — visual confections. After making his initial splash with a series of murals celebrating the cheesy milieu of the roller-derby arena and its helmeted, booty-shorted heroines, Oberndorfer gradually shifted gears. He is best known now for paintings that offer a virtual concession stand of sugary treats: chocolate, chewing gum, Peeps candies, ice cream, lollipops, donuts and, in his latest body of work, popsicles.
On Wednesday, “Pop: Everlasting,” a solo exhibition focusing on Oberndorfer’s most recent frozen-treat-themed paintings, will open at Germantown, Md.’s, BlackRock Center for the Arts.
Oberndorfer is unapologetic about both the nutrition-free nature of his subjects and the easy accessibility of his style, which aims for the slick look of mass-produced goods. “I kind of hope the artwork works like the treat itself,” he says, “as a form of instant gratification.” At the same time, he bristles at criticism that his work contains nothing but empty calories. The artists enjoins those who stand before his paintings and see only artistic junk food to “look harder.”
And what might they see? Oberndorfer resists the most facile interpretation of his art — that it’s an obvious critique of the American diet. At the same time, he says he’s not averse to that interpretation. The painter, whose father has diabetes and grandfather died of complications of the disease, confesses to being somewhat surprised at just how infrequently anyone acknowledges that there could be a darker side to his art. He still remembers one comment he received at his lollipop-themed show last winter at Hierarchy in Adams Morgan — “Sugar is the devil!” — because such negativity about his work is rare.
Though Oberndorfer has exhibited his popsicle paintings before, the BlackRock show includes a twist that may give both his fans and his detractors a bit more to chew on than they are used to. In addition to being a straightforward tribute to the defining frozen snack of summertime, “Pop: Everlasting” is also an homage to the pop-art practitioners who inspired Oberndorfer.
According to the artist, the exhibition takes its cue from the National Gallery of Art’s 2012-2013 Roy Lichtenstein retrospective, which included the late pop artist’s cartoonish takes on famous masterworks by other artists (such as Monet’s series of “Haystacks”). At BlackRock, Oberndorfer will use the form of the popsicle to riff on the work of some of his own artistic heroes: painters including Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Rauschenberg, Ed Ruscha and Andy Warhol.
Inspired by Johns’ s 1960s series of “inverted” American flags, for instance, which transposed the familiar colors of Old Glory into their chromatic opposites — green, black and orange — Oberndorfer will repeat Johns’ trick, turning the iconic red, white and blue “bomb pop” into an unappetizing mess.
More often, though, Oberndorfer’s popsicles retain their allure. “When I’m mixing color, and when I get the color just right,” he says, “my mouth starts watering, literally.”
There’s a wistful sense of nostalgia to Oberndorfer’s art, which seems to celebrate a memory of something on the verge of melting away. That’s deliberate, according to the artist. In addition to celebrating the art of the past, Oberndorfer hopes his popsicle paintings will invite viewers to reflect on the fading summers of their youths.
“At the root of what I am exploring there is a question,” he says. “How much do you carry into adulthood?” As for the artist, he intends to lug all his childhood baggage into the future. “I don’t ever want to grow up,” he says. “I’m fine with my Peter Pan syndrome.”
BlackRock will host a reception for “Pop: Everlasting” on Saturday from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.
Also of note:
●“Arena.” Artist Selin Balci uses mold spores and other living organisms to create delicately beautiful but unpredictable abstractions. Sept. 12 to Oct. 31 at Honfleur Gallery in Anacostia.
●“New. Now.” Each year, Hamiltonian Gallery mentors a group of emerging artists through a fellowship program offering practical advice about professional advancement in art. The class of 2014-2015, featuring Naoko Wowsugi, Adam Ryder, Allison Spence, Nancy Daly, Dane Winkler and Dan Perkins, takes its bow in this group exhibition. Sept. 13 to Oct. 25 at Hamiltonian Gallery on U Street NW.
●“Sculptures by Rachel Rotenberg” and “Paintings by Ryan Carr Johnson.” Rotenberg’s elegant yet muscular wood sculptures pair nicely with Johnson’s paintings, which use a quasi-sculptural heft to compare picture-making to object-making. Nov. 6 to Dec. 20 at McLean Project for the Arts.
●“LineWorks: Drawing Redefined.” Five very different artists — both 2-D and 3-D — explore the nature of the line in a group show featuring work by Lee Gainer, Sarah Irvin, Nikki Painter, Foon Sham and Sarah Weinstock. Nov. 13 to Jan. 3 at Greater Reston Art Center.
●“Frank Hallam Day: Shrines.” The artist, who previously has photographed nocturnal scenes featuring trailers and RVs parked in the wilds of Florida, turns his attention to the landscapes of Thailand and Burma. Dec. 12 to Jan. 24 at Addison/Ripley in Georgetown.