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Dream Catchers

Cara Ober And Tung Lo's Mixed-Media Works Cull Imagery From Waking Life

IMAGINE SOMETHING OF YOUR VERY OWN: Tung Lo's "Blue And Orange Flowers" (top) and one of Cara Ober's highly active works.

By Deborah McLeod | Posted 9/5/2007

Gallery Imperato's present exhibition Cursed Blessings, is a two-dreamer show. Chinese-born, Paris-based Tung Lo and Baltimorean (and erstwhile City Paper contributor) Cara Ober combine visions to produce a floating world of desire, entanglement, and ambiguity in this fetchingly pastel, ink-marked assemblage of works.

Both artists incorporate printmaking techniques in their mixed-media paintings on stretched canvas, and that alone gives their installation, curated by Imperato director Cheri Landry, an effective measure of theatrical cohesion and affinity. The works possess a delicacy in their facades but are made substantial in their like mounting on thick stretcher forms. Because both artists tend to build up camouflage layers of atmosphere beneath their surface figurations, the box constructions almost feel like storage for the works' early incarnations of region and mood.

Printmaking always carries an aura of mystery, a lingering condition of chance, but also an outside authority that remains within the work after it leaves the studio. Ober and Lo additionally share this contingent quality to get where they wish to go, and where they would want us to accompany them.

Although Tung Lo is Chinese, there is something of a traditional Japanese ukiyo-e sensibility to his portraiture style. It arrives in the confusing intermingling of portrait and mask, the mystery of identity and oblique intention captive in those introverted white faces or their more calligraphic outlines. The iconic countenances that ghost across Lo's elaborate surfaces are central to his work. He might poeticize a painting's atmosphere with dawn mists that move in from an ancient Chinese landscape, but he focuses his primacy on the innocent female face. In someone else's hands these paintings might not be so successful for that. Why only female, too? It's a decision that could dangerously soothe the entire oeuvre. But the artist is just able to surpass sentimentality by a slender but taut line that owes its strength to the humanity, uncertainty, and even occasional omniscience that he manages to invest with the most subliminal nuance in the faces. Not quite as worry-free as a Noh mask, they express evidence of ripening personal experience and disquiet.

Experience is also an abstract manifestation in the collaged patterns, the tisserae of paper and textile that Lo enfolds around the faces like a silken headpiece or multifaceted aura--or memories--that he alludes to in several of their titles, adding psychological mystique to his subjects. Several of Lo's faces may recall turn-of-last-century French artist Marie Laurencin's fashion of depicting the female in her black-eyed, pursed-lip reverie. Perhaps that is a specter of Lo's more synchronal French inspirations that make their way into the expatriate's technique. Of course, Laurencin's Occidentalized style originated out of Oriental influences.

Cara Ober's nearly square works reverberate with Lo's verticals perfectly. She fills in what is absent in the margins of his and leaves open the nucleic center that compels him. Ober's semiotic scenes are fractured and strewn with inconsistent memorabilia from a variety of disparate cultural periods perhaps beginning with Victoriana and ending maybe the day before yesterday.

Ober has a writer's addiction to words and phrases and appropriates one or two from the dictionary or encyclopedia for each work. They are fulfilled by their definitions, pronunciation, or an illustration. Because one must approach the image somewhere, these phrases might tempt as the starting point for her cryptic pictographic narrative. On the one hand, the net result of her work seems random and jumbled--this and that, here and there like a junk-mail envelope near the phone. But arrangement is really her genius, and use or nonuse of space a discriminating and carefully managed concern. Each composition is suspended in a perfect balance through some visual or psychological mechanism or other, whether it be violence and sweetness, geometry and botany, negative/silhouetted form with line drawing, or the factual rivaling impulse or obsession.

The works are also highly active. Ober effectively does not establish a starting or vanishing point or a denouement, but rather gives primacy to every element, even the ones that are almost obliterated--so pale and veiled that you must strain to perceive them. The compositions really compel you to do this, too, in order to gather every clue because, unlike Lo's work where vagueness leaves mental space for the ego to relax and luxuriate, Ober's juxtapositions and literary paraphernalia suggest a possible revelatory outcome. It seems more important to "get" the message in these works, like there is more riding on it.

There is one more quality that the two artists of Cursed Blessings share. It is a brand of acquiescent vulnerability in their conclusions regarding time. Tung Lo may offer an unwrinkled face, but in it there is an understated recognition of the ultimate tragedy of time. Cara Ober may include a menacing pistol or mention of underlying evil, but her work conveys an equivalent sense of sweet, tentative existence and the charms we use to hold it together. That must be where the cursed blessings hide.

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