When Cory Oberndorfer first started painting roller derby girls in 2006, there were 25 national leagues. Four years later, there are now more than 300 registered leagues in the United States, including Charleston's own Lowcountry HighRollers. Although he was never an athlete or sports fan, Oberndorfer was drawn to the conflicting elements of beauty and brawn in roller derby.
"You can have both," he insists. "The whole visual of beauty and brawn was the first thing I noticed when watching derby. The skaters I know spend a lot of time personalizing their uniforms and making sure they look as good as possible while pushing around other players on the track. It's their way to keep their feminine identity in such an aggressive sport."
His large-scale, pop-art murals in mouthwatering sherbet colors depict skaters Oberndorfer has met during his "research" as a frequent derby attendee. His brightly colored images of sexy, tough girls on skates are reminiscent of comic book superheroes. Images of candy are infused in the murals, collages, and prints. In the mixed media collage titled "Swedish Fishnets," a line of red candy fish trail behind a skater. "Lollipops and Ass Whoopings" depicts three skaters crashing to the ground through a giant, multi-colored lollipop. The images and provocative titles of skaters wearing short-shorts and helmets are playfully erotic, challenging gender stereotypes. "Gender doesn't matter," Oberndorfer says. "It intrigues me when people are concerned with that type of thing."
Redux Director Karen Ann Myers was introduced to Oberndorfer by a Barbie on wheels. She was in D.C. visiting a friend in graduate school when a doll roller-skated down the hallway and crashed into her legs. The memorable meeting landed Oberndorfer his present gig as Redux's 2010 artist in residence. Myers felt the energy and subject matter of his art would appeal to a wide variety of people. "We want to make contemporary art more accessible to the public."
As an emerging artist and drawing teacher in D.C., Oberndorfer thinks art should be fun for himself and his viewers. The sense of fun and play is obvious in his work and process; Oberndorfer brought his "secret weapon" (a bubble machine) to Charleston and has been posting photos on his blog (thederbyproject.wordpress.com) of his daily adventures around town. Last week, Oberndorfer turned on the bubble machine as he and an assistant painted, and the bubbles created an unexpected moment of live art. There is humor and childish playfulness in "Nothing Here But Us Ducks," a 17-by-81-foot mural of bright yellow ducks on the exterior wall of Redux. It's the biggest painting he's ever done, he says. Some of the HighRollers even showed up to help.
"I approach my artwork in a way similar to how rollergirls approach derby," Oberndorfer says. "They take the sport very seriously and train hard, knowing the physical risks. But they also put on a good show with outrageous names, outfits, and halftime shows. I take the content of my paintings seriously, armed with my education of color theory, art history, and interest in gender issues. But I make it colorful, accessible, and fun. Like the rollergirls, I prefer to defy stereotypes. For them it's gender-appropriate behavior; for me it's the elite nature of fine art."
The elite nature of fine art is transformed inside the walls of Redux, where artist and director have worked to break down the formula for going to an art gallery. For the opening reception, Myers knew she wanted to create a "spectacle" event to encourage community participation and celebrate the completion of Oberndorfer's ambitious project. "What better way to do that than with a skating parade?" she says. Leading the parade will be the HighRollers followed by a vintage-style float designed by Sugar Bakeshop. "It will look like a moving bowl of candy," Oberndorfer says. Free and open to the public, the parade will begin and end at Redux. "We want everybody to show up with their skates," Myers says. Or at least to cheer them on as they cruise by.