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William J. O’Brien

William J. O'Brien video still

William J. O’Brien, the artist’s first major solo museum exhibition, demonstrates his prolific output in a broad range of media, from sculpture and ceramics to drawing, textiles, and painting. 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.

I think that my approach to making art is one that’s very consistent and disciplined. In the same way there’s like this historical notion of drawing being like a warm-up or sort of exercise and sort of thinking ideas through. I actually really look at it as an opportunity to be playful and experimental. And also, because drawing as a material lends itself to be not very economically expensive, I think it’s much easier to be comfortable with failure in drawing, and that sort of opens up the extension into other materials for me.

I have two different places that I work: my home studio, which is private, where I will do a lot of drawing, and then I have another studio that I work in for ceramics and for more larger-scale things.

I think for me, I prefer—depending on the day—to really do ceramics in the morning, because the immediacy and the curiosity of clay is something that I kind of go back and forth on. I think clay, in its natural state, has a very sort of physical way of working, but it’s also not an easy material to work with. The best way to work with clay is to be direct

and physical, and I find that I am, at the beginning of the day, more direct and physical.

Tactility is almost radical now, because it sort of requires this sort of rudimentary rejection of technology. I’m really fascinated by this idea of patterning and the tonality of the work, how the work sounds, and I think different types of drawing has different types of sounds depending on how its formal qualities exist in the work. Somebody once said that I was a painter of materials, so that maybe the thread that exists between the work is actually how the work

sounds and how it relates to how it reacts to one another. The threads that you can or cannot make between

the works of art is also the critique and critical value of the work, and those sort of push and pulls between the different types of work is part of the critical content of

the work.

Most of the work is always usually related to two central issues of drawing for me: One is personal relationships and autobiography, how those sort of exist in the narrative of the work, or in the sort of characters that develop in the work, formally or abstractly. But then also, too, I’ve been open to this possibility that the figurative drawings are actually self-portraits, that even though they have no actual adequate representation of myself, they’re more maybe emotional/psychological representations of my body.

I’ve noticed that when my work is beautiful is when I am most depressed, and when it is the most violent and repulsive is when I’m the most happy.

I think the figure exists in two different ways: the internal body and the external body. When we look at a figurative work in a two-dimensional way, it tells a story psychologically. When we look at it in more of a sculptural way, the physical body is more how we physically react to an object. And that’s also something that is important for me in the work. I want there to be a physical reaction, whether that’s repulsion or attraction, and that push and pull is something that I’m really interested in.

There is a sort of attraction and kind of curiosity, but then kind of confusion there that actually is kind of part of the experience of the work—that there is a sort of uncertainty about the purpose. So oftentimes when we go into a museum, we want everything to look nice and make sense, but it might be interesting to consider that maybe art is where things don’t make sense, and that you can’t draw those conclusions.