Camille Obering: Intellectual Edge

Camille Obering holds effortless, old guard grace while never missing a moment to contribute her fiercely intellectual edge. A native of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, she moved to New York in the mid-2000’s to work at The Whitney Museum of American Art where we first met. She went forward to build and contribute to the nonprofit, RxArt, unparalleled in concept; they place and commission contemporary art in children’s hospitals. The organization is still thriving due to her incredible commitment to the arts and belief in their importance.

Most recently, Obering curated an exhibition aptly titled, REFUGE, at Art Basel Miami to great avail. She partnered with Architectural Digest to commission and bring together a somewhat unlikely set of artists. Featrued artists were Hilary Harnischfeger, Robert Lazzarini, Philippe Malouin, Michele Oka Doner, and Carlos Rolón/Dzine. The works remain on view indefinitely which is an heir apparent compliment to the success of the show. Obering is the epitome of calm and contemplative which is deeply felt in her choices. She has the rare ability to let art rest quietly and truly observe meaning without projecting her own preconceived notions upon it. In addition to curation, she has her own art advisory and consultancy business which leads her around the globe. I sat down to ask her about her own perspective on the world she is working to construct in art and for herself.

"The ideas that have continued with me are the tensions created in the piece between ecstasy and agony, being mesmerized yet repelled, anticipation without resolution, despair and being humbled by physical tasks we are often relieved from. Yet, we are still subject to the mundane and repetitive nature of things we must do to survive."

Photo courtesy of Architectural Digest, Obering far right

Brit Parks: How did you first fall in love with art as a passion to pursue as a career?

Camille Obering: I am an ideas junkie and entrepreneur at heart. Art always kept me curious and every once in awhile I would have a transcendental moment where I was totally blown away. That kept me coming back for more. I also loved how art reflected what was happening in society at that time and it was a way to study history.  Art is like a drug, once you get hooked, it’s hard to quit, so I made a career out of it. 

BP: When curating, do you let a set of works come together organically? Or do you have a more prescribed idea of the concept first and then set out to find the work that fits?

CO: When curating I think, what is the purpose of the show?  Is it to engage a broad audience in the arts? Is it to focus on a certain artist’s career at one point? Is it to bring to light how artists are addressing a certain theme? Etc. From there I think about the location and venue, and if there are special qualities to that place that lend it to certain works over others. This usually focuses the curatorial practice down to a few artists and or pieces that work for this situation and can back the purpose or thesis of the exhibition. I think it is important to have focus in communicating a message so you make an impact and keep the audience engaged.  

For example, with “Refuge” the show at Art Basel Miami, the intention was to engage the public in the artworks. I was given a large outdoor space to work within. In approaching the show, I thought about what the cultural and natural characteristics of Miami were; about the site itself, the size and the fact people walked through the space to access the beach from the hotel and that it was visible from the boardwalk. It was also important to me that the artworks could be activated by people.  

Michele Oka Doner, a native Miamian whose work often explores the natural world, created a tee-pee like structure called “Mangrove Retreat” which simulated being inside a Mangrove tree, a native Floridian plant.  

Carlos Rolón/Dzine, created a piece called “Bochinche,” which incorporates three benches surrounding a centerpiece constructed out of things you would find in a traditional Puerto Rican home: wrought iron fences, handmade macramé, tile work, and exotic plants. “Bochinche” (which means gossip) harkens back to a day before smartphones and social media served as a central place for friends and acquaintances to gather, chat and build community.

Philippe Malouin created a circular swing set where each swing faces another to encourage an interaction that is at once individual and communal.


Robert Lazzarini’s work is rooted in ideas of phenomenology.  Lazzarini painted a mural on a wall whose shape was an inverted trapezoid.  He utilized this shape to show a pair of female eyes peering out from the wall both through the patterning of moire lines in the image and the physical palm trees in front of it.  Up close the piece is very abstract but as one distances themselves from the work the eyes appear more clearly.

Hilary Harnischfeger’s piece juxtaposed seemingly contradictory materials such as steel, glass, hydrastone, silicone, minerals and wood. The work has a geological quality to it and was tactilely seductive. 

BP: Why was it important to you to curate a show installed outside at Art Basel?

CO: Curating a show outside at Art Basel Miami Beach presented a wonderful opportunity to engage people in works of art outside of a hyper-stimulating art environment focused on commerce in a convention center. Often, there is such a bombardment of your senses at the fairs that you zone out and can’t engage on a deeper level. I welcomed the opportunity to engage people in large-scale installations outside, where they could find refuge from the chaotic nature of Art Basel and truly engage with the artworks and reflect on the pieces themselves.

BP: What are some of the most striking works you have seen on your recent art forays?

This fall, Matthew Day Jackson invited me to see a performance piece called “Rural Violence.” The two-act piece was conceived by Brandon Stosuy and featured work by Matthew Barney, Cynthia Daignault, Lionel Maunz, Dominick Fernow aka Prurient, John Sharian, Brennan Hall and Dana Wachs. I only saw the second act (the first act was presented in Troy, New York in August 2015) but it easily stood on its own and was a very powerful and moving experience.  It evoked strong emotions in me.

Image courtesy of The Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, Matthew Day Jackson, "Lean-to-Blanton"

The set up was such that Brennan Hall, a counter tenor opera singer, sang a poem that a child murderer sent her mother when she was incarcerated (she was 11 when she murdered a 2 and 3 year old). Hall’s voice was one of the most ethereal and beautiful voices I have ever heard. I didn’t know what he was singing at the time because it referenced part one of the piece but the effect and impact was still there. He sang over a recording of Dominick Fernow. Fernow’s sound to my ears, was very jarring and difficult to listen to. Hall’s sensational and pure voice coupled with Fernow’s dissonant sound created a spectacular tension of agony and ecstasy. It was repelling and mesmerizing especially when Hall’s voice and Fernow’s recording came together for brief moments of harmony. 

It took place in Matthew Barney’s New York studio on the East River looking toward Manhattan. Hall sang on a humble stage with crates arranged as a backdrop. While Hall sang, a man in the foreground, John Sharian, was moving rocks and spray painting them. It seemed like it may have had no importance and wasn’t that interesting. After about 7 minutes of the Hall, Fernow and Sharian performance, people started to turn around and go outside to see the water. I thought people were leaving the performance because they couldn’t stand it anymore. After a bit, my husband Ben suggested we go out to see if anything else was happening. As we walked outside to the water’s edge, a boat with a faint light came into view. A woman, Dana Wachs, on a boat was ringing bells that sounded like somber church bells. To me, it suddenly felt like Hall was a siren calling to her and she was responding with bells. The boat moved excruciatingly slow, again causing tension. The view was quite surreal with the Manhattan skyline in the background glimmering in the night sky.  

Matthew Barney in his New York East River studio, the site of "Rural Violence"

The focus shifted again back to Sharian who was now wielding a sledge hammer and breaking up the rocks that he had placed in a burlap sack and netting. It was powerful, energetic and aggressive work; the physical movement of Sharian breaking up the rocks was visceral. It reminded me how much man power it takes to complete seemingly simple work that we often rely on machines for in contemporary society. Seeing the evolution of his ‘character’ also symbolized, for me, the mundane and repetitive nature of tasks and work that we must do to get through every day life to survive. Again there was an interesting juxtaposition conjured up in my mind.  

It ended with Sharian, dragging the rocks out to the waters edge and looking out to the boat. No one knew whether it had finished. Everyone was silent for about 4-5 minutes waiting, then we all broke out into applause.  

The ideas that have continued with me were the tensions created in the piece between ecstasy and agony, being mesmerized yet repelled, anticipation without resolution, despair, and being humbled by physical tasks we are often relieved from. Yet we are still subject to the mundane and repetitive nature of things we must do to survive. I had visualizations of sex and birth; two activities that really bring out a raw and animalistic side in a person.   

Later, I had a chance to speak with Brandon Stosuy and he said, “We used the term “rural violence,” not in the sense of small-town crime, packs of skinheads and the KKK. And not necessarily an ugly fight or murder. It’s the violence of nature and the natural world. Things that happen that seem brutal, but are part of the cycle of things; the moment after salmon spawn and their corpses pile up in the shallows of a river. It’s eerie, but gorgeous and also mundane. We are looking at moments that feel violent, but are also beautiful and then we’re suspending and zooming in. We’re also ritualizing these things in a very human sense.  

BP: What is the one emotion in art that always has to exist for you?

CO: Art doesn’t always have to elicit one emotion from me, but curiosity, tension, and beauty are what continue to drive me to have a relationship with art. 

Art Basel Photos courtesy of Architectural Digest

Interview by Brit Parks

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