Santa Fe

Jill O’Bryan, NM.1.22, 2022, graphite on paper, 96 × 60".

Jill O’Bryan, NM.1.22, 2022, graphite on paper, 96 × 60".

Jill O’Bryan

Moon, mesa, sky, air—with singular intimacy, Jill O’Bryan attends to the fundamental elements of earthly life. Hers is an attention that attunes not only to the wondrous matter of the world—striated rock, juniper branch—but to the mystical geometries that bind this planet together, and us to it.

A small color photograph, Mesa #59, 2022, quietly acted as the crux of her exhibition “Breathing with the Elements.” In this image, the moon hovers above the New Mexico mesa where O’Bryan lives. Every other photo in her 2021–22 “Mesa” series is black-and-white, but here the sky’s deep cobalt stuns the eye. A dead juniper’s branches twist their calligraphy up toward the orb as if reaching out to it, their motion rooted in earth but tensing toward the heavens, the gesture nearly human in its plight. That moon appeared again as a central concern in the watercolor, acrylic, and pencil drawing series “Breathing into the Moon,” 2022. These renderings are composed on a rice paper so fine that a breeze could float them up to the celestial body itself. In one picture, a light-blue circle mimics both the full moon and the firmament in which it hangs, while patches of white resemble clouds, craters. Elsewhere, multiple azure spheres fill the geometries hidden in the sky—a square is penciled inside a circle, a triangle sketched in a square. No lunar ode here—something more profound, and profoundly simple, is unfolding. O’Bryan seeks those laws of which the moon itself is an ornament. It is mystic work, placing pulse and breath in meaningful relation to the entire cosmos.

The “Breathing into the Moon” series manifests Henry David Thoreau’s exclamation “The stars are the apexes of what wonderful triangles!” The world is writ large—any two people looking up at the same moon have made themselves into two points marking a wondrous geometry. That triangulation adheres in O’Bryan’s work in multidimensional ways. A set of white cast-plaster cones in varying sizes, each bearing the patina of the mold that yielded it, here refigured that triangle from plane to volume. In doing so, the sculptures offer a deeper understanding of the artist’s vision, one that awakens us not to the beauty of any given piece, but, more importantly, to a quality of bodily attention from which the art results. One can imagine—lying down on a rooftop, or on a New Mexican mesa—that the eye is a single point whose purview expands to a circumference far above, an inverted cone that connects the singular self to the infinite whole.

In the drawing Breathing into the Sky #11, 2022, concentric circles on a blue field rippled out from a center point, recasting the cone back into two dimensions. That receded vertex signals the singular self, while the outermost ring is that humble limit to what any given person’s attention can encompass. O’Bryan so beautifully makes no claim that the human can hold the infinite complexity of the world, but one can look up and observe the boundaries of honest relation, or focus straight ahead, as the photos of the “Mesa” series imply. One can also gaze downward, as NM.5.21, 2021, and NM.1.22, 2022, asked us to do. These graphite-on-paper rubbings of stones that call to mind topographical maps—each work is eight feet high and five feet wide—expand beyond the human body, tracing ancient geological forces. The images, however, do not record merely the textures of rock faces, but entire landscapes. Indeed, a Blakean wisdom permeated the show, where one could rightfully find “a World in a Grain of Sand.” O’Bryan is an artist who looks down as attentively as she looks up, with a focus that roots the sky in the earth. Her work is intimate and done by one body but reminds us that anybody can do the same. Such an instinctive generosity, revealed here to be an element as common as air—which is to say, as breath—astounds. The central inspiration that sustains each individual life is also the common element in which we all live. The notion is a worthy reminder that our innermost lives bind us to one another and to the world.