The Longest Journey
John O’Reilly: A Studio Odyssey
Worcester Art Museum | May 13 – August 13, 2017
It starts with a murmur. Morphs, grows, extends, searches, unfolds. Doesn’t become a statement. Then, a scream, shock-corridor, cover your eyes, say it isn’t so. There’s no going back.
John O’Reilly’s montage constructions pull the viewer through the sausage-grinder of human experience. Their design is deceptively simple; meld the classical with the profane, inveigle broad-daylight cut-ups of the gay body into textbook images from art history. Manipulate scissors, paper, glue with trembling pink fingertips, to force a shotgun wedding of photographs new to each other.
It’s a kind of Eden.
These photocollages have their arms around the blissed-out homo-heroic frangipanis of Jess (an important progenitor for O’Reilly); David Wojnarowicz’s autobiographical mash-up series Arthur Rimbaud In New York, from the 1970s (O’Reilly inserts photos of himself, nude); also have their tongue in the ear of Joseph Cornell; and along the way share a jail cell with deviant angels William Burroughs, Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, Joel-Peter Witkin—but John O’Reilly is an original.
You haven’t seen this.
1930s, Red Bank, New Jersey, young John is sent to live with his authoritarian grandfather. “I became very religious. We had a chapel in the house. My sister and I would play, and I would pretend to be a priest.”
“The dead past and the present living aren’t separated,” says O’Reilly, peering out through horn-rim glasses like a mild professor. He stands in his kitchen in dreary Worcester, MA—the same factory town of noir-god filmmaker Samuel Fuller, poet Elizabeth Bishop, and terrorist-trickster Abbie Hoffman.
On the walls are vintage photographic prints; Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand, Tod Papageorge, who was John’s art-history student at the University of New Hampshire in the 1960s. Shelves groan with books, the framing device for his exhibition A Studio Odyssey at Worcester Art Museum: Jean Genet’s transgressive act; the exploration of time in the poetry of the gay Greek poet C.V. Cavafy; and the moment in Henry James’s “The Middle Years” when the dying protagonist reflects on a lifetime of artistic effort, finally realizing that the work justified the life. On transgression, O’Reilly is matter-of-fact: “Here are society’s rules: I go against them.”
Folk art and anonymous art dominate other domestic spaces; there’s a small primitive sculpture of two puppets wrestling—or having violent sex, man on man. “I hate anything machine-like or mechanical,” he blinks, his wiry frame assuming a chair in his book and paper strewn studio, “digital is too much intellect. I have to fight intellect, my work needs to look like one unit without looking like a collage. It starts with an idea, then I go through book after book until I find something, over a long period of time. I call them montages, where one thing logically flows into another…”
A man out of time, lost for this century, John O’Reilly searches for the sublime. “That thing you need to do that isn’t there,” he states, not explaining. “An artist is not normal. When I was in high school I wanted to be Norman Rockwell. I have to fight narrative. It has to be a story but not told to you.”
This is the first major survey of O’Reilly’s work since Klaus Kertess curated his 2001 Addison Gallery show, which followed on Kertess selecting him for the 1995 Whitney Biennial (when John was sixty-five), the biennial that brought wide recognition to Catherine Opie and Matthew Barney. Sixteen years later, this Worcester show trends toward ‘O’Reilly-lite’; only about ten percent of the ninety-plus works feature his central motif—the penis—but the examples here are flaccid, mostly art-historical references, whereas Kertess exposed erections.
What this exhibition does beautifully is give us O’Reilly’s 21st-century progress: his 2014 Nijinsky finds him working toward what has become his current concern: incorporating found images of children into his established style. It intertwines cut-up fragments of a dead nude boy from an 1875 Bouguereau painting with a circa-1900 cut-out of a young androgynous child wanly holding a toy soldier. It’s unsettling.
His 2014 Four Boys could well trouble the citizenry; it features a sex-posing, full-frontal male (hustler?), juxtaposed with found children’s book drawings of boys gazing at him with innocence and curiosity. The smaller boy with eyeglasses is a stand-in for O’Reilly.
A conversation with Trevor Fairbrother (former curator of American art at the MFA-Boston, who curated shows of O’Reilly’s work at the Howard Yezerski Gallery) raised the question of why this work remains little-known. “It’s not activist like Andres Serrano or Mapplethorpe. And the fact is that showing an erection is instantly horrific to our culture; the Boston Globe, for example, was quick to use the word ‘pornographic’ in reviews, and the media picked up on that. Also, he’s an oddball artist. A couple of years ago John was in a group-show curated by MoMA’s Elderfield and Galassi, at Gagosian, and I thought, Ah, this will finally tear the lid off it for John. And it didn’t happen.
Will this Worcester show tear the lid off O’Reilly’s career? Sadly, no. For as winningly as curator Nancy Burns and her assistant Lauren Szumita have assembled this galvanizing exhibition, its distance from major metropolitan centers will afford it few visitors. And with no catalogue for the show, it will recede into mere memories come September.
Timothy Francis Barry has written for the Boston Globe, New Musical Express, Aesthetica Magazine, artcritical and artsfuse.org. His first column was under the editorship of Byron Coley at Take-It Magazine. Summers he operates Tim's Used Books in Provincetown, Mass., which book critic David L. Ulin, called his "favorite bookstore in America." (Los Angeles Times, 8-29-13) He lives in New York.