Artist Rob Ober is an unlikely rising star.
He is 54. He does not have a degree from a reputable art school. Instead, Ober taught American and Soviet history at a preparatory school in rural Connecticut for three decades. And for the last 15 years he has also run a gallery next to the school, showing non-conformist Russian artists and giving early shows to Katherine Bradford, Robert Nava and Jordy Kerwick.
His own paintings of monsters and alligators, snakes and deities, taped nipples and swung swords share the looseness and raw primitivism of these popular artists. Collectors go gaga.
“I just love the work,” said Los Angeles resident Alberto Chehebar, who spotted Ober on Instagram two years ago and quickly snapped up a few paintings. “He just regurgitates these extraordinary works without a filter and with such sincerity.”
Ober’s solo debut Motley Crew at the Shrine Gallery in New York has sold out, priced between $3,000 and $25,000, according to owner Scott Ogden. Fans include artist Erik Parker and new York Magazine art critic Jerry Saltz, who recently named the paintings “aggressive, strange and sensual.”
“What I admire most about Rob’s approach is his totally intuitive approach,” said Ogden, whose gallery focuses on outsider art.
Dealers often have roots as artists, but the reverse path – from sales to art production – is uncommon. Joel Mesler, who started out as an artist before opening a burgeoning art gallery in Los Angeles and moving to Manhattan and then East Hampton, recently accepted his early calling; His paintings have sold for hundreds of thousands at auction since the pandemic.
Ober, on the other hand, has never identified himself as an artist, although he says he has painted since childhood. His transformation into a successful artist, while idiosyncratic, says a lot about the red-hot contemporary art market, with its emphasis on discovering the next big thing – and reaping financial rewards from early access. It’s also a testament to the power of Instagram, where art dealer Ober found other artists and artist Ober was discovered as well.
“I’ve never made art with the intention of being an artist or having an art career or showing my art,” Ober told me over the phone from his summer retreat in Maine.
The son of an American diplomat, Ober grew up around the world and many of those early experiences now trickle down into his paintings. He spent formative years in Russia, hiring snake charmers in Delhi and playing tennis at the Nick Bollittieri Tennis Academy in Florida at the same time as Andre Agassi. He was expected to have a conventional career, like a Wall Street job. Instead, he spent the next 30 years immersed in art and teaching.
“The paintings have this urgency,” said Parker, an artist and collector of Outsider art who owns a painting by Ober. “Like they have to be in this world.” Ober may not have been making art very long, but “you can sense his lifelong obsession with looking at art.”
Ober first entered the art world in the 1990s as a collector of Russian art, shortly after landing a job teaching history. His first love was Malevich, but he couldn’t afford it, as he once jokingly asked a retailer for a 50-year payment plan. Nonconformist art was more affordable, and Ober began buying works by Leonid Sokov, Ilya Kabakov, and Mikhail Roginsky.
As the Russian art market began to grow in the post-Soviet era, Ober decided to open a gallery to introduce contemporary Russian art to Americans. He showed works from his personal stock and other collections. He brought Russian artists to New York for a month-long residency program during which they made art for exhibitions at the Ober Gallery, he said.
“When I ran an art gallery, it was never obviously about the money,” Ober said. “I was in Kent, Connecticut. But it was about giving artists the opportunity to share their unique vision. And also to purchase their work.”
Ober began painting about seven years ago when his mother’s health began to deteriorate.
“I carried a lot of fear with me,” he said. “I don’t really drink, I don’t do drugs. And I had to put it somewhere. This floodgate broke when my mother got sick and all these images just poured out. All these experiences that I had stored inside and thought about for years.”
As a teacher at a boarding school, Ober had to juggle multiple tasks: teaching, coaching, mentoring — not to mention running his gallery. He painted in a 1,000-square-foot studio behind a fire station on weekends and nights. His Instagram posts show him outside a red barn in paint-splattered North Face jackets, a far cry from the preppy buttoned-up look he wears during his day job.
It helps that Ober is productive. Insanely productive. He estimates that he has taken around 1,000 pictures so far. The day before we spoke, Ober made 15 20″ x 16″ paintings in just three or four hours, he told me.
“It’s fucking crazy,” said Parker, who has been making art for three decades. “I’m jealous because I’m making one [painting] in a month.” It’s hard to paint that fast, he added, because it makes you feel vulnerable. “It sounds trite, but you have to know who you are.”
“Being an Expressionist, I work very quickly and intuitively,” Ober said. “I don’t like it when my mind gets too involved in the creative process. There’s a tension between what’s going on in my head and what my body and my intuition and subconscious are telling me to paint or what the painting is saying it wants to be.”
Things went pretty quickly outside of the studio, too. Chehebar’s discovery of Ober’s paintings on Instagram was followed by a scream Post from Saltz, who was bittersweet because Ober’s mother died the next day, he said. In March 2021, Ogden dropped in for a studio visit and the two hit it off, bound by a shared affinity for outsider art, whose aesthetic is now also being embraced by fashion-forward insiders like Nava and Kerwick.
“I love outsider artists,” Ober said. “And while I can’t be classified as one because I grew up in the art world and I’m pretty knowledgeable about art history, these are my people.”
Last December, Ogden brought Ober’s painting to NADA Miami.
“I don’t like the term ‘explode,’ but we sold a lot of work,” Ober said. “I knew after Miami that something had changed in my life, that a door had opened for a new career.”
But something was needed. In January, Ober held his last exhibition as a gallery owner, dedicated to work by Lev Meshberg, a Ukrainian-born figurative painter who taught teenage John Currin. Between February and June Ober produced 70 paintings and participated in group shows in galleries in London and Paris and at the Dallas Art Fair where he exhibited with James Barron Art.
While vacationing on Peaks Island in Maine, where he bought a home 10 years ago, Ober prepared his next project: painted skateboards to be featured by Ogden, another skateboarder. Some will appear in editions, others are one-offs. Next year, Ober will have a solo show with Shrine in Los Angeles, where the gallery will expand in the fall.
In preparation for his Shrine show, Ober completed eight 8 x 6 foot paintings. And he just bought a 7,500-square-foot building in New Millford, Connecticut that will serve as a studio for himself and possibly other artists.
While many things have changed as Ober has adjusted to life in the glamor of the art market, some will always remain the same. He still supports artists by collecting and feeding off the creative energy of those paintings, he said.
“Anyone who creates, I think they understand that this isn’t really about you,” Ober said. “It’s about your responsibility towards art.”
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