John O’Reilly

Miller Yezerski Gallery

Miniaturist John O’Reilly has been constructing montages since the late ’60s, creating photographic tableaux from pictures and props that he reassembles into complex worlds that are always poetic and intimate. The black-and-white Polaroid montages in the series “Panoramas,” 2002–2004, average only about four or five inches in height but stretch up to twenty-three inches across, establishing a cinematic space. Using an uncoated film that allows him more time to compose the assemblages, O’Reilly’s pasted-together photographs unite allusive narrative in cubistic space. These sixteen works are characterized by dynamic surfaces, meticulous craftsmanship, and an improvisational quality. The seventy-four-year-old O’Reilly, whose themes are art, war, and death, uses a simple vintage camera, scissors, ink, and paste to produce multilayered work.

Many of O’Reilly’s favored cast of characters—which includes Britten, Corot, Muybridge, Nijinsky, and Velázquez—crop up again here. He also continues to employ images of his own studio interior and the miscellany of small objects to be found there. His cutout protagonists are often partial, ripped, and torn ghosts of earlier works and are dwarfed by their natural or architectural settings. As the artifice of montage becomes apparent, O’Reilly leaves the studio to weave through forests and gardens, the photographed view from his urban Worcester, Massachusetts, studio as a reminder of quotidian reality. Incongruities of scale and the varying rhythms of light give these panoramas a mythic feel and illusory appearance.

“Orpheus Suite,” 2002–2003, is dedicated to the mythological poet and musician who, although torn apart by Dionysus’s maenads, lives, according to O’Reilly, “in the sound of forests, rivers, winds, and the voice of the arts.” O’Reilly mimics Orpheus’s fate in six patched-together montages, equating the tranquility of the forest with the quiet of the studio. In Orpheus Suite #28, 1-26-03, the graceful arm of a dancer (taken from an image of Nijinsky) grows like a branch from a Brueghel painting of a tree (suggesting crucifixion and regeneration) and is transformed into Orpheus. He inhabits a studio that becomes a forest, while a tiny goat (borrowed from a Muybridge image and representing Dionysus) overlooks an Edenic landscape from the vantage point of a cardboard bridge. This suite of montages is intended to “suggest music through dance-like rhythm across the surface, shifting swings into and out of background space, and individually placed movements,” and succeeds in creating its own serene, shadowy world.

A more bellicose realm is presented in the apocalyptic Muybridge in a War Torn Interior, 5-2-03. Next to a huge pile of crumpled paper “rubble” strewn with toy soldiers, an elderly Muybridge contemplates the horrors of war. Heavenly light penetrates a hollowed-out building fashioned from the empty pages of a Victorian album, as the valet from Las Meninas bears witness to the destruction of this miniature civilization.

Veiled autobiographical references aside, O’Reilly’s only visible presence in his new work occurs in Old Albums, 2-9-04, a memorial to his recently deceased younger sister. The image of a woman, cut from an early-twentieth-century photo album, represents his sister, sitting on a pile of aged albums, while the godlike hand of the artist reaches down to show her a photograph of a young man with a dog. A stone archway leads us from nostalgic memories of the studio to the reality of telephone wires, a pavement, and a house across the street. This image is the most personal of the exhibition, conveying the relationship of the artist and his sister without picturing them directly, and evoking the passage of life and time.

As O’Reilly busies himself creating tiny photographic stage sets for the dear spirits of the past, he makes colossal universal statements. Oppositions of inside and outside, war and peace, life and death, Apollonian and Dionysian are questioned, but not all resolved, in these immaculately fabricated worlds.

Francine Koslow Miller