Flex Gallery and the work of Greg Oberle
by Zachary Johnson
In response to a lack of public art opportunities during winter, on January 11th, I launched Flex Gallery, a mobile public art space located on my left arm. For the project, I sent canvas armbands to six artists, requesting they turn them into artworks. Each artist works in a wide variety of media, and I provided them with no themes or limitations other than the dimensions of the band. In February for two weeks, I wore the most bizarre armband yet, the work of Greg Oberle, a local artist and member of the Collective Artspace. I spoke with him last week to learn more about his work and hir creative process.
Zachary Johnson (ZJ): How did you get started as an artist?
Greg Oberle (GO): My education really stated in high school. I took AP studio art twice because I’d run through all of the courses my high school had offered. And I went to U of M and studied industrial product design for three years, and everybody kept telling me, why don’t you just be an illustrator because you always seems most enthusiastic about the drawing stage of products? Not that the ideas were lacking, I just always was sinking all my time into the rendering. That was when I decided to switch over to Kendall in 2008. I finished with a degree in illustration.
But as you can see with this project, I really take almost more from industrial design coursework than I do the drawing. I still love to play with sculpture and things occasionally happen in 3-D like this.
ZJ: What has your career as an artist looked like since graduation?
GO: So after graduating in 2010, I briefly worked at a bank…and it was a really challenging environment. Authority’s always been a problem for me. So, having left that job behind, I decided I would do absolutely anything creative to be self-employed. So I’ve done illustration, graphic design, some sculptural projects, but over time the most regular niche I’ve fallen into has been working with restaurants, doing murals and illustrations and installations. Signage, menu design, all of that, and that’s all based in Detroit, so I spend a lot of time on the east side. So that’s what funds all of my other little side projects.
Reflecting on the past six years of freelance, I don’t know if I should be proud or infuriated that my portfolio is all over the map, stylistically and in terms of medium. I think it’s made me comfortable saying yes to things that I don’t necessarily know how to do because I’ve become adept at [problem solving] – I thank my industrial design background because I really appreciate problem solving, so I don’t get intimidated anymore by going well outside my comfort zone and working backwards. I like that way of working so much that in client meetings, I tend to deliberately think of some odd weird thing that I want to try, I’ll try to push that. To give myself something to wrestle with.
ZJ: When you’re not at work and you can work on whatever you want, what do you make?
GO: Sometimes my brain feels like a big messy, three-dimensional Venn diagram and new intersections are occurring all the time. The brief overlap of what’s occurring tends to take me in one direction briefly and then I shift immediately away from that. So, it’s all over the place. It’s drawing. It’s painting. It’s sculpture. My personal feelings come out in this work. I tend to be a bit grotesque, whimsical, off the wall, fantastical in my personal work.
I could tell you a funny story about what happened for ArtPrize last year. I experienced my first encounter with censorship. It was for a really great space called Michigan House. They had another local artist and I commissioned to come in and they told us both, like, “you do you.” After the fact they were saying, “Well, we were really thinking you were going to do a mural.” I bought seven ceramic lawn ornament lambs and affixed baby arms to their rear ends. Each arm was holding a leash that was connected to the next arm — it was this really bizarre inappropriate parade, and the work was up for a whopping hour before enough complaints were filed that they took it down. So, I was paid, and I performed, and I brought the work but it made everybody really uncomfortable, so I took it down. So, these [pieces on the armband] are actually the scraps from that. I still felt motivated to tinker in that realm.
ZJ: Besides the materials coming from your ArtPrize project, what was some of the other inspiration behind the armband you created?
On a semi-regular basis I tend to deal with – I still feel very childlike in many ways. The world very often doesn’t make sense to me or I find it really disturbing or scary, but also delightful. So sometimes I tend to combine elements of adulthood with elements of childhood and show how strange it is to make that transition but still have one foot back into younger years. It’s not like it’s more innocent, but…in some ways I think we grow up too fast.
And I think too I’m a little antagonstic in my nature, and sometimes I like to make things that make me laugh and make other people question my sanity. I don’t think I have a very good sense of humor, so sometimes I like to try and make something that makes me laugh or makes other people laugh. Can I tell some kind of joke through a piece?
ZJ: Do you feel you begin more with materials and start experimenting from there, or do you start with concepts and let them dictate your materials?
GO: It’s very much one or the other. Sometimes things are finished before I even have a chance to think about what it is I’m doing or why and other times it’s more cerebral; I have something I want to say and that forces the decisions along.
ZJ: So, you, Maddie, Angelica, Megan, and I are all members of the Collective Art Space. Why did you decide to join it?
GO: It was out of excitement for the people who were getting involved. I was friends with Rachelle [one of the co-founders], first and foremost. So she was the one who invited me, and I hadn’t been a part of the Grand Rapids art community until joining. I haven’t actively gone to seek it out, and I’ve spent so much time on the other side of the state working on those projects that are site-specific… So It’s been an opportunity to embrace the local scene a little more and meet new people.
ZJ: What’s next for you as an artist?
GO: I have some very loose and free ideas right now. I’m thinking more about interior design. Working with these architects and interior designers for restaurants has made me see spaces differently. And given me a taste for what it might be like to think about the whole space rather than just the wall that’s been given to me. I’ve even started investigating MFA programs for interior design. If I were to ever decide to move into more of a career format with my work, I think I would consider that. Then I’ve also on-and-off painted professionally with a company that does interior/exterior commercial painting, and as much as I tend to not like it very much and find it pretty tiring, all the different materials that we use have given me new ideas for ways to work. It’s really interesting being in that world of construction because it’s not one I’m really familiar with, but now when I see good work I acknowledge it.
And the methods and tools behind construction are really interesting to me now. So I’ve even thought about hiring some of these contractors to help me build different kinds of surfaces or potentially even designing whole sculptures. I was recently in a space where they had updated an old warehouse and because of the way they wanted to orient the floor plan, it was kind of at an angle to all the pipes, so there were all these really funny corners where the drywall was cut in these strange ways just to fit these pipes crisscrossing the rooms, and I thought that was beautiful. So I was envisioning working with a dry-waller and someone who knows plumbing to work to build some kind of crazy piece that I could install.
ZJ: Can you think of something you’ve seen in your life that was particularly visually striking?
GO: I studied abroad in Ghana when I was a junior at U of M, and we were there for a little over a month working to develop recycling programs in the bigger cities. I kept remarking to myself and to others in the group, to the point that they were tired of hearing it, the sky there just seemed like a different color, and the Earth too was this really rich red. It was the first time I’ve been abroad and felt like I was in a strange place, like otherwordly – and it was beautiful.
And then Japan too. Japan was another place where I found a lot of peaceful moments, more than I usually get. I’m a pretty hyper, anxious person, so it always stands-out to me when I’m in a place, or with people, or standing in front of a work of art that makes me suddenly feel relaxed. It’s almost startling.
The family I stayed with in Horishima took me to the coast on the west side of the main island, and we went on a one-night, two-day fishing trip, where they woke us up at 3:45 in the morning to get out to the boats and go to this little island chain to fish. And it was communal sleeping; everybody slept in this little main room in this tiny working fishing village on the tatami mats, with futons, the whole deal. And that was really beautiful and special. I never get up that early. Seeing the sun rise on the ocean with the topography of these quintessentially Japanese islands – like something out of a Miyazaki movie, that was something pretty incredible.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Posts by Zachary Johnson are also available via instagram and tumblr under the name Vis Ed.