BY Christian Hawkey in Reviews | 03 MAR 03
Featured in
Issue 73

John O'Reilly

Julie Saul Gallery, New York, USA

BY Christian Hawkey in Reviews | 03 MAR 03

Curiosity morphing into kaleidoscopic intimacy is, for those familiar with John O'Reilly's black and white photo-montages, to be expected. Background and foreground merge, and geometric, jewel-like fragments of images convey multiple worlds: gay porn stars, cut-out details from a Titian family portrait or the transparent reflection of the artist himself floating on a shard of glass.

Whether it's the contemplative aesthetics of medieval iconography or Joseph Cornell's nostalgia-infused boxes, such an experience is age-old. If there is an aesthetic tradition of intimacy and miniature spaces that contain multitudes, O'Reilly is, after Cornell, its next champion.

His black and white Polaroid collages first surfaced in 1995, when Klaus Kertess selected a number of his images for the Whitney Biennial. O'Reilly was, at the time, completely unknown - a 65-year-old artist who had lived for the past 30 years in Worcester, Massachusetts, working as an art therapist at a state-run hospital for the mentally ill. He was an outsider in the simplest sense: someone to whom recognition was either beside the point or inevitable.

In any case, people paid attention to his carefully staged dioramas. One series, entitled 'Occupied Territory' (1995), features bodies scissored from gay male pornography magazines collaged to the heads of German soldiers from World War II. These newly eroticized figures were subsequently grafted on to details of Corot landscapes torn from the pages of art history textbooks. The resultant images are beautiful and disturbing. Questions abound: how is a landscape occupied by political realities? What is the border between desire and possession (and possession's sexual extension, penetration)? And by being sexualized are the soldiers not also strangely humanized - no longer uniformed Third Reich robots but gay males who, like many World War II soldiers, may have been forced to choose the uniform rather than openly acknowledge their sexuality? These images reveal only questions; answers are refused. Yet the series was controversial enough for a board member from a major museum to refuse to allow his work to be acquired.

O'Reilly's own body is a recurring feature in much of his work. He often splices nude portraits of himself on to famous Greek statues, or into the studios of celebrated painters. In one image, Dancing with Picasso (1985), the naked artist and the Spanish master twirl hand-in-hand around the latter's studio. Part homage, part humour, O'Reilly's self-willed voyages into the realm of the famous represent a kind of distilled longing - one way to possess one's artistic heroes is to travel into their world. Cornell's yearning was similar, although he was content to pull back when a sufficient nostalgic mist had gathered around a box. Cindy Sherman's halloweenish masquerade keeps the possibility of complete transference at a firm, ironic distance. O'Reilly goes all the way. He doesn't just inhabit Picasso's world - he becomes Picasso. The sense of play is exhilarating: O'Reilly, like Zelig, pops in and out of 5,000 years of art history. Who is that ageing, bespectacled man, holding a camera, crouched on the back of Théodore Géricault's horse?

These 23 new photomontages mark an extension and a reversal of this freedom: O'Reilly has removed himself from the images. The collages are dense, fragmented, tonally austere. Only filaments of his self remain - reflections on glass shards. The images are endlessly suggestive, with shadows drifting out of body parts, and body parts drifting out of open mouths, as in 2-6-01 (2001). I see many of the images as visual representations of the process of remembering, which makes sense, since montage is also the mind's method of recollection: time collapses; space collapses; each memory that rises to the surfaces is changed by that surface. And by discarding the collagist's impulse toward seamlessness, and allowing the edges to gather into complex, intersecting lines, the new work pushes the montage into a kind of abstract expressionism. In one final image, 2-18-01 (2001), included in O'Reilly's new monograph of plates entitled Assemblies of Magic (2002), the viewer is placed in the perspective of looking up at a young boy, as if from under his feet. We are somehow underground, where soft grey tonalities brush into concrete blacks, and where we are strangely aligned with a floating eye trimmed from (perhaps) a self-portrait by Caravaggio. One senses it's the artist as a young boy looking down at the work and worlds he will one day create. But what makes O'Reilly a master is his generosity: by aligning your eye with that of an old master, you the viewer are directly included in a three-way gaze.