New York

Justin Liam O’Brien, Baptism, 2021, oil on linen, 60 × 60".

Justin Liam O’Brien, Baptism, 2021, oil on linen, 60 × 60".

Justin Liam O'Brien

In July 2020, New York–based painter Justin Liam O’Brien opened “Damned by the Rainbow,” a solo show at GNPY Gallery in Berlin. It bloomed across Instagram; he had caught the confusing spirit of lockdown, when the company of others was simultaneously desired, feared, and redefined. A number of his oils on linen featured men together—dancing, having sex, reluctantly hanging out—their voluptuous bodies flushed not so much with blood, but with an expansive, billowing fondness. When O’Brien depicted crowds with his warm and comforting palette, they were buoyant, bustling. But when he portrayed solitary figures, their loneliness was palpable and all too recognizable.

Roughly a year later, O’Brien returned to his longtime gallery, Monya Rowe, with an exhibition titled “Dreams.” Its centerpiece was a giant canvas—an ode to a beloved Brooklyn sex party: NYC Inferno (all works 2021). Titled after the bacchanal, the painting called to mind Diego Rivera’s work in its heroic representation of queers fucking and sucking, proving that an orgy can indeed be a political event. In the foreground a three-way solidifies into a secure compositional structure, while in the background a trio of bodies seemingly merge into one, becoming a many-limbed creature of ecstasy. Whether from the divine heat of communion or the hard work of intimacy, all of them glow.

O’Brien is alone in Self-Portrait, 29. His visage droops so glum and heavy that it brings down the landscape behind him—the work gives off a solitary kind of doom. But elsewhere, he let his softly shaped characters find each other in the holy texts of queer cinema and literature. His painting Each Man Kills the Thing He Loves, a dizzying mélange of knife fight and circle jerk, depicts a scene from Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1982 film Querelle, an adaptation of Jean Genet’s 1947 novel Querelle de Brest. Another painting, Magic Mountain—perhaps an homage to Thomas Mann’s homoerotic masterwork of 1924—features a portrait of O’Brien’s partner scrunching his face at an ominous insect. His expression seems, like much of Mann’s writing, inscrutable but passionate.

The artist spent the lonely days and nights of the pandemic looking to the kind of religious art that sustained viewers through previous apocalypses. O’Brien’s Nativity transposes a version of Piero della Francesca’s choir from his Natività, 1470–75, as they serenade the infant Jesus. In O’Brien’s picture, the little savior raises his arms and looks quizzically at the guy in short shorts kneeling before him. The man sucks in his gut, and a ray of sunlight emphasizes his pale adult breasts, which will offer no succor to the child of God (but might get some attention at Inferno). In Baptism—another reinterpretation of a Piero painting, Il Battesimo di Cristo (The Baptism of Christ), 1448–50—partygoers kiki around a table laden with red Solo cups and aluminum cans. A twink with sagging pants bends over his phone while performing a sort of talk-to-the-hand dismissal of the sacramental sprinkling of Christ, which occurs deep in the background. It’s hard not to consider this canvas as a read of queer culture, filled with people too obsessed with their techno-revelries to notice the divine. (It’s also tough not to think about the generous reverence Salman Toor bestows on the smartphones his characters cradle, the machines tenderly bathing their owners in a numinous light.) Near Jesus, a dancing man waves his arm in ecstasy. His limp wrist finds a home between Piero’s holy dove and the bowl of water anointing the head of the savior. Who’s blessing whom? The son of God appears to disapprove of the scene. But as O’Brien’s work shows us, heaven is here—drunk, beautiful, and human.