William J. O’Brien, the artist’s first comprehensive museum exhibition, demonstrates his prolific output in a broad range of media, from sculpture and ceramics to drawing, textiles, and painting. Although O’Brien is perhaps best known for his work in ceramics, his working process often begins with the act of drawing. His works on paper usually feature exuberant colors and geometric patterning that mimic the automatic drawings of the Surrealists while faintly evoking psychedelia and dream paintings. His ceramics are playfully formed, often drizzled with vividly colored glazes, and exhibit a range of cultural references, from ethnographic objects of the ancient past to “face jugs” of the antebellum American South. His paintings are accumulations of pigment, fabric, string, and other materials that appear to droop toward the floor, and his sculptures of tenuously attached die-cut shapes, while stiff and upright, seem to create more negative space than positive forms. Altogether O’Brien’s work evidences the artist’s easy absorption of a broad range of narratives—art historical, ethnographic, spiritual, pop, poetic—as well as his singular ability to create objects that appear as distinctly enigmatic as they are aesthetically coherent.
Stemming from O’Brien’s interest in language and poetry, the exhibition is organized like a poem. It is divided into several sections, or stanzas, with each section featuring works in several media to underscore the connections between disparate objects as well as the artist’s interest in scale. The stanzas demonstrate how each of O’Brien’s artworks is a carefully calibrated exercise in improvisation and control. Above all, the exhibition develops new language around O’Brien’s contemporary abstract artworks—language that focuses on process rather than individual expression or technique and that considers his body of work as a reflection of a multitude of cultural sources.
O’Brien’s first artist’s monograph, produced by MCA Chicago, accompanies the show. Exhibition curator Naomi Beckwith and Peabody Essex Museum Curator of Contemporary Art Trevor Smith contextualize the artist’s work in light of recent modes in contemporary art history, such as l’informe, the handmade, and semiotics. Critic Jason Foumberg contributes a creative writing piece, aesthetically inspired by the artist’s working process.
This exhibition is organized by Naomi Beckwith, Marilyn and Larry Fields Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.