New York

John O'Reilly

Julie Saul Gallery

In John O’Reilly’s “Occupied Territory,” 1995, a series of 16 small black and white Polaroid photomontages, the helmeted heads of young World War II German soldiers are transplanted onto innocently suggestive male nude bodies from ’50s gay porn mags and stationed within or against portions of Camille Corot’s silvery poetic landscapes. These meticulously mediated and faceted collages are placed against variously toned gray backgrounds and set up on blocks of wood, concrete, or brick, in miniature stage sets. Subtle tonalities of light and shadow combine with shifts in depth and perspective to form complex, ambiguous surfaces.

O’Reilly’s composite hunks (in Wolf, Brinner, Richter, Baum, etc.) stand in for or cavort with Corot’s nymphs in idyllic sylvan settings. The soldier Wolf is placed inside a detail of Corot’s Goatherd Piping, displacing the goatherd and receding into Corot’s feathery tree. The recapitated soldier/nymph named Hilz steps off a cinder block right into Corot’s Women Bathing. His delicate movement mirrors that of Corot’s bather, who leans out over the lake with one arm grasping a tree branch and the other hanging languidly down, fingers just breaking the surface of the water.

O’Reilly’s careful consideration of proportion and the placement of each element in his compositions in relation to every other element is reminiscent of the classic sensibility of Corot. But O’Reilly’s considerable deftness as a photomontage artist coexists with a certain obliviousness to history. He tells us the work is about the conflict “between literal reality and classic sensibility,” and would have us view these “visual poems” as reflections on Marianne Moore’s definition of poetry as “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” But these are not just any toads. These soldiers with their Nazi helmets are more like Todesengel (angels of death), and the territory they occupy is crowded with memory, as O’Reilly well knows. Our esthetic pleasure in looking at these pictures is poisoned the moment it arises; we cannot look at these works without recalling a Nazi esthetic of idealized nudes in idyllic landscapes, brutality and sentimentality combined in völkisch Arcadian bliss, and malevolent ignorance masquerading as innocence.

In the other work in this show, a Victorian photo album entitled A Dance of Death, 1994, O’Reilly’s themes are played out in a sort of masque. The protagonists of this allegorical drama are Picasso, Hitler, Jesus, and the artist himself. Hitler and Picasso are competing seducers locked in an erotic and metaphysical struggle for thebody and soul of O’Reilly, and perhaps that of Art. In one panel a Hitler/Madonna cradles O’Reilly/Christ in a pietà pose. Elsewhere Hitler appears astride Thomas Eakins’ horse Billy, and again as Eakins’ pan-piping youth from a photographic study for Arcadia. O’Reilly’s combination of high seriousness and wacky excess is both disturbing and compelling. In a central image, the artist takes his place on the cross with complicity.

George Grosz once claimed that he and John Heartfield invented photomontage at five o’clock one Sunday morning in 1916; it might even have been on that same morning that a frustrated artist-turned-German soldier named Hitler was temporarily blinded one morning in a British gas attack in France. “A few hours later,” Hitler said, “my eyes had turned into burning coals; it had grown dark all around me.” If photomontage and German fascism were separated at birth, O’Reilly’s dark vision stages a tense—if ambiguous—reunion.

David Levi Strauss