San Francisco

Helen O’Leary, Cost #18, 2018–21, egg tempera, linen, eggshell chalk, and pigments on wood, 13 × 21 1⁄2 × 5".

Helen O’Leary, Cost #18, 2018–21, egg tempera, linen, eggshell chalk, and pigments on wood, 13 × 21 1⁄2 × 5".

Helen O’Leary

Helen O’Leary’s painting/sculpture hybrids assert their presence in an ambiguous zone between two and three dimensions, embodying a lyrical yet fierce waste-nothing resourcefulness that appears at first to be the perfect response to pandemic-era isolation. Her bricoleur’s gift for making something out of nothing—for using every tiny scrap available, including bits of older artworks—actually goes back much further. Born and raised in Ireland, O’Leary attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the 1980s and has been teaching at Pennsylvania State University, University Park, since 1991. Her art has been described as a memoir of two countries, but in “Writing the Unwritable Novel,” her solo exhibition here, another narrative thread is present, because these pieces evolved during the 2018–19 fellowship she was awarded for the Rome Prize. Walking around the Eternal City, O’Leary discovered that many things about the ancient metropolis reflected the values of her own childhood, including the ways in which even the most battered fragments of artifacts were carefully guarded and held in reverential esteem. In her Rome studio, she began building the eccentric open “cartons” that appear for the first time in this show. Each one cradles the intricately constructed form for which it was specifically made.

All the works here were built piece by piece out of cut fragments of wood, pegged together with even smaller scraps of the same material until they accumulate into rough rectangles, shallow boxes, or tondos: irregular shapes that embody a slightly rakish precarity. Despite this illusion of fragility, layers of portrait linen glued on front or back by O’Leary confer both strength and stability. The cloth is usually covered with multiple layers of rabbit-skin glue and chalk, to which she eventually adds ground eggshells. Layers of the compound accumulate, softly disarticulating angles; gradually, edges acquire a lovely plump dimensionality, like the thick skins of paint on old window frames. O’Leary’s soft yet vivid palette invokes the garden that she tended during lockdown while holed up in a barn in the Pennsylvania countryside. She even made some of the pigments, including a tender pink derived from madder roots, an ocher-ish yellow extracted from buckthorn bark, and a cochineal red distilled from insects.

Two of the works rest on wooden shelves wrapped in linen stiffened with the eggshell-chalk mixture; the remainder lie or stand on the gallery’s handsomely produced, idiosyncratic pedestals. Many of these pieces, propped up with sticks constructed out of sundry scraps, tilt like plants that turn their leaves or blossoms toward the light. The sticks are at once simple and elaborate, objects well loved and much repaired, suggesting an itinerant impermanence. At the same time, each piece’s equilibrium embodies a deep and enduring patience. (O’Leary has described the process of making, remaking, and mending pieces until they no longer fall over.) All are titled with the word cost and a number (e.g., Cost #19, 2018–21), a reflection of the artist’s preoccupation with the toll exacted by the decisions we make, from what we eat and where we live to whatever we choose to create.

The scale of this work is defiantly human, reflecting the artist’s stated desire to make a world without resorting to the easy grandiosity of immense canvases. In these small yet powerful objects, O’Leary “writes the unwritable novel” by wordlessly reframing the idea of what painting can be in this incomprehensible present.