John O’Reilly

Howard Yezerski Gallery

John O’Reilly’s black and white Polaroid collages are intelligent combinations of art history’s past and O’Reilly’s personal fantasies. His most recently constructed inventions juxtapose images of classical male statuary, paintings by Caravaggio, and photographs by F. Holland Day and Wilhelm von Gloeden with nude self-portraits. These curious blendings of past and present, culture and commonplace, are contained in elaborate interior studio sets designed by O’Reilly. All 23 collages exhibited here have been carefully layered to create a contemporary magic-realist space. The pieces resemble whole photographs of previously constructed collages, as they appear smooth and seamless. In fact, each composition is composed of many sections of carefully cut-out and recombined coated Polaroids. Together they appear as uniform installations that give testimony to O’Reilly’s mastery of photocollage and suggest a deeper psychoanalytic preoccupation. O’Reilly’s spirited appropriation of homoerotic art allows him to explore his own homosexuality in complex, clever ways—his images can seem alternately transparent and opaque.

O’Reilly often places an image of his own bespectacled face or nude derrière among figures from art reproductions, picture frames, and shards of glass. This spatially ambiguous world provides a context in which the artist explores the depth of his own artistic and homosexual fantasies. The “I” of Caravaggio, 1988, features a detail of O’Reilly’s face, cropped to reveal only his own nose and predominant black-rimmed eyeglasses. This contemporary self-portrait merges with Caravaggio’s David and Goliath, in which a seductively youthful David triumphantly holds a sword in one hand, the head of Goliath in the other. The painting breaks through its frame and further breaks from the world of art through the shattered glass, which appears as a part of O’Reilly’s studio set. The broken glass might serve as metaphor for the artist’s desire to shatter the barriers of time and space, in order to participate as voyeur and symbolic sexual sacrifice to Caravaggio’s David. The shattered glass also suggests the cathartic pain of merging reality with fantasy—the combining of narcissistic ambition with an insistence on the artist’s, and the image’s, physical presence.

O’Reilly creates a touching homage to the poet Hart Crane in As Hart Crane in Poseidon, 1988. (The subject, a great American poet troubled by personal problems as an alcoholic and homosexual, jumped overboard while returning from Mexico to the U.S. and was drowned.) This moody and complex composition combines images of three normally incongruent historic nude males in a multilayered surface. A central rear image of the 5th-century B.C. bronze Poseidon is graced with an untouched Polaroid snapshot of O’Reilly’s slender buttocks, and propped against a white studio backdrop. Strings emanating from the snapshot lead to Poseidon’s hands and extend in either direction to photographs of two nude young males. A snapshot reproduction of one of the 19th-century photographer Baron von Gloeden’s seductive Sicilian youths smiles coyly, and symbolizes the forbidden homoerotic realm that simultaneously entices and frightens. The Poseidon-Crane-O’Reilly statue is also linked with a vintage photograph of a diving male nude, who appears to be falling into the sea. Shattered glass overlays again litter the scene. O’Reilly freely participates in the psychodramatic arenas of homoeroticism, and accepts his own part in the long and bitter legacy of homosexuality in art and life. The symbols suggest O’Reilly’s need to merge with both the noble and tragic aspects of homosexuality.

Every image in this remarkable exhibit is a veiled or partial self-portrait in which O’Reilly becomes an actor in his own collages. His buttocks merge with those of the archaic Kritios Boy; his features replace a dead Christ by Caravaggio. Such a bold use of the self-portrait never really gets self-indulgent or trite. O’Reilly indicates a real longing to immerse himself in the heroic artifices of past masters; his studio props and all-too-human, pasty-white nude self-portrait reminds us that he enters his recreated realms at will.

Francine A. Koslow