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WORCESTER, Massachusetts — It’s particularly poignant and fitting that John O’Reilly’s current retrospective at the Worcester Art Museum is titled A Studio Odyssey, as the artist’s studio for the past several decades had been his own modest home in Worcester, one shared with his partner, sculptor James Tellin, until they recently downsized to a more accessible and smaller home.
Although currently represented by Tibor De Nagy in New York, Miller Yezerski in Boston, and Hosfeldt in San Francisco, O’Reilly remained somewhat “undiscovered” until his inclusion in the 1995 Whitney Biennial. He has spent most of his professional career working away from art centers, and within the confines of a small space — both the upstairs bedroom in which he worked as well as the works themselves, all of them 3-by-3 feet or far smaller. As he told me, he “makes do” with what he has, not what might be.
I have visited John’s home studio several times over the past ten years. My partner, Robert Flynt, is also a photographer, O’Reilly has been something of a mentor to him, and we own several of his works. So I brought some familiarity, with the photographer, his imagery, and his studio, to this retrospective.
O’Reilly’s process and imagery reflects the accumulation, layering, and shifting perspectives that accompany a long career of looking while crafting a world in miniature. He understands, quite brilliantly, the optics of the small, the miniature, the literally cut-down-to size. His own works are assembled with images sliced-in from a variety of found sources, including found photos, art books, porn, and vintage coloring books. Truly the master of the Exacto knife, this work is meticulous and detailed, yet never gnomic. There is always something more to see, to discover, to associate.
In A Studio Odyssey, the works are arranged in groupings of four to six, some paired with complementary works by artists such as William Hogarth. Just as the individual images within each montage communicate with one another, the pieces in these groupings let us mix and reassemble a larger body of work. This work reflects and refracts the history of art, as well as the history of looking, scanning, reading an image. Did John Berger ever see John O’Reilly’s work? I hope so.
What is the primary image? Is there one? This changes the longer you look, but not through optical tricks. The most intact or least deconstructed figures may initially seem central. Then you realize that the seamless background is itself composed of several cut up, ripped apart and reassembled images. All these surfaces create a vortex pulling you in. O’Reilly’s meticulous mixes of photographs and drawings are complex narratives. Although they presage digital photography, they are entirely analog — he owns neither a computer nor cell phone and works with found materials, Polaroid imagery, and his own “drugstore” prints.
In O’Reilly’s work, the “hand” is more about scissors than shutters; what is snipped away, re-shaped, selected and layered. His “Scissors” (2016), an assemblage of drawings and a child’s coloring book with a large flat drawing of scissors, is a kind of guide to his process and principles. Found images of wildly diverse aesthetic and narrative power can be snuggled up next to each other and violently cut into each other in the same image.
O’Reilly’s work is an accumulation, or montage (his preferred term), that transmits something larger than its parts. It prompts us to foreground not the process (as in the “cut-up” approach of artist Bryon Gysin, for instance), but the totality of the image. Looking at “The Seer” (1979), I see in the young man’s face — probably torn from a porn magazine — tension, intimacy and surprising clarity.
For “In a Dutch Dream” (1990) — a horizontal composition that feels almost like a triptych — O’Reilly (are those his arms too?) shares the foreground with a naked youth, whose own arm may be a cut-in of Caravaggio, while a Pierrot figure near a tiny duck toy in the bottom right corner stretches its arms diagonally. The work is dynamic and alive and emotional, yet it only hints at narrative. O’Reilly’s work can send the viewer on a chase after narrative closure. The photomontage “French Youth” (2005) has no readily identifiable “youth,” but rather shadows and a statue that could have been a young person but is so damaged that it now resembles a death mask — a youth no longer young. In O’Reilly’s work there is an intimate, uneasy oscillation across the ages.
In much of the artist’s work death and life are piled on top of one another, like a spatial compression of a Godard film sequence, associated and disassociated. In “War Series #44, PFC Killed in Action, Germany, 1945, Age 18” (1992), the cutting serves to carve away anything extraneous. A Polaroid photomontage, the violence of collision echoes throughout the composite image and its constituent parts. Negative space, darks and lights, surround the naked body, the erect penis, the extended club, a dying or dead head turned away from us and falling down into the earth. A pushpin at the very bottom creates a violent pin-up portrait of an everyman now drained of life.
Likewise, in “Of Cavafy-Ring Bearer” (2008) a small child in a gender-ambiguous outfit is perched atop a cut-out of a chair resting against a medieval soldier’s helmet. Near the bottom, beneath the helmet, is a 20th-century photo of a dead soldier. A much smaller figure is turned away from us, his age indecipherable. This wreckage of masculinity and humanity is surrounded by the blackness of what I take to be unexposed Polaroid prints.
For “With Chardin” (1981), “With Bonnard” (1985) and work directly referencing Genet, connections to past artists are more explicit, and require less of the viewer. While I am not as drawn to these images, “Marat with Eros” (1983) is tonic and iconic. In this work, a winged cherub (Caravaggio’s “Amor Vincit Omnia,” 1602) leers — sympathetically? victoriously? — at David’s renowned image of the revolutionary, dead in his bath. The merging is so simple, so graphically on-target, that any doubts I have about such blatant juxtapositions vanish. I can’t imagine a better image for Eros.
Along with Cavafy, Jean Genet, and Henry James to provoke his curious intellect and self-interrogation, O’Reilly has “Nijinksy,” created through a 2014 assemblage of found prints.
This work has a timely charge, as word has leaked out of Russia that the Bolshoi Ballet’s new work about Rudolph Nureyev, Vaslav Nijinsky’s heir, has been indefinitely postponed, quite possibly due to outlawed “gay content.” In O’Reilly’s work, a naked cherub is haloed by the cut-out negative space of the central figure, a red-cheeked paper doll of ambiguous gender, holding a toy soldier. Below is a small reclining figure. Arms, hands and feet surround all. As in so much of the artist’s work, the eroticism is radical; Eros is life, death, sex, childhood, aging, intake and outflow. Mobile and morbid yet also full of life, red-cheeked but also red-handed, everything moves toward dismemberment —dissociation and thus new association.
O’Reilly’s eroticism reflects desire, fear, the death incubated within life. Thus, “A French Birth,” in which a man appears to be giving birth while the head of Christ glances over, reminds me of a comment by musician Lucinda Williams: while her work is infused with religious references, she does not believe in God, at least as commonly conceived. It’s just everywhere, infused in life.
Decades into his practice, O’Reilly continues to experiment with process and materials. His most recent pieces are assembled primarily from found drawings in children’s coloring books or simple line drawings, and include little to no photographic material. They have a similar quality to his earlier works, of being torn and repositioned and juxtaposed, yet a sense of whimsy comes through. “I don’t tend to get stuck. I’m open to what comes along,” he told me. Where in some other artists’ collage-like work we are given a storm, chaos (which can be glorious), O’Reilly settles his fragments in a most exacting way, to create a multileveled landscape, turbulent but absorbing.
On my initial visit to A Studio Odyssey, I questioned why the wall text for many of the images foregrounds the artist’s sexuality as something he’s “struggled” with. This is often the critical context imposed on work by LGBTQ artists whose sexuality is in any way overt. Framing sexuality as a struggle implies a problem. I recently attended an exhibition of Anselm Kiefer’s watercolors and artist books at Gagosian in Chelsea, and saw a room full of female nudes, yet Kiefer’s subject matter is not problematized or seen as a “struggle.”
On my second viewing of A Studio Odyssey, I found the wall commentary more appropriate and nuanced. Really, the work is so seductive, so inviting, so suffused with imagery, that commentary fades, as it should, into background. Gay artist, struggling soul, sure, but John O’Reilly is above all a relentless examiner of the depth of an image, and the deceptively flat plane of what we call a drawing or photograph.
John O’Reilly: A Studio Odyssey continues at the Worcester Art Museum (55 Salisbury Street, Worcester, Massachusetts) through August 13.