Pop-up art

Dec 27, 2006 at 12:00 am

The fabrication of reality on television and in movies, as outlandish and overblown as so many attempts at it are, underwhelm us. Now and then, we eke out an ooh or ahh over an eye-popping electronic graphic or a fantastic digitalized image of a human body catapulting through the stratosphere. But usually, the effects are numbing. We are surprised by little; we are unconvinced; we are gravely bored by the spectacular emptiness of it all. The greedy exploitation of media succeeds in leaving us only more adrift. Most efforts to construct seriously engaging drama are, frankly, a fucking farce.

Thankfully, Susanne Hilberry Gallery has mounted an exhibition of photomontages by artist John O'Reilly that's an antidote to entertainment ennui. Fabricated all the same, O'Reilly's constructions of reality are potent; they cut to the quick.

O'Reilly, a 76-year-old artist, has lived with sculptor Jim Tellin, his partner for more than 30 years, in Worcester, Mass. (They also shared a career for 20 years as art therapists at Worchester State Hospital.) At home, the couple lives quite privately, and in his small studio, O'Reilly makes tantalizingly tiny montages with an antique Polaroid camera.

O'Reilly has worked as an artist for decades; the earliest image in this exhibition, for example, dates from 1973. But fame came rather late for him, in 1995, at age 64, when he was included in New York's prestigious Whitney Biennial by guest curator Klaus Kertess (who recently organized the premiere exhibition at Detroit's new contemporary art museum). In a New York Times review, Michael Kimmelman mentioned O'Reilly as one of the exhibition's "mature artists who have been neglected by the art world."

Working in the dada tradition of montage, O'Reilly often uses highly personal photos — nude self-portraits, childhood snapshots — and male magazine porn, seamlessly joining them with classical images of art and war that he lifts from various publications. His technical mastery of photomontage is, in itself, extremely seductive. O'Reilly surgically cuts up black-and-white Polaroid pictures (color, he says, ruins the illusion of the dreamlike) and meticulously sands them tissue-thin so that their seams will be virtually invisible. He then assembles them with casein, a glue made from milk protein. These gems invite close inspection, so bring a magnifying glass.

But technique only matters if it hits its target, and O'Reilly is a marksman. The four-inch-by-three-inch "On Gericault's Horse" features a nude self-portrait of O'Reilly sitting astride a carpenter's sawhorse as if it were a saddle, holding a camera aimed at the viewer. He has crudely paper-clipped this photo to a reproduced picture of a horse painted by Gericault, and then photographed the results. In his self-portrait, he stares out, almost challenging the viewer to question his rude authorial pose. By using Gericault's horse as a support for his own body in this wacky carpenter's montage, O'Reilly suggests that his identity is contingent upon Gericault, and thus upon art history. Art consequently constructs him as he constructs art. Tentatively balanced, his penis resting blithely on the sawhorse, O'Reilly makes a palpable assertion that "this is all there is to me, and for you to know about me."

Hilberry's captivating survey includes 52 separate montages, including serial work. The earliest and, for me, least rewarding series is "My Constellations," dating from the early '70s, in which O'Reilly mounts fragments of images of the male body — a leg, a foot, a penis and testicles — against a black-as-night-sky background. Sometimes images of objects or animals, such as a hand-held fan or a chicken, punctuate the image. While graphically spectacular, these seem like thin sight gags or puns rather than having the powerful dramatic content of his later work.

They do, however, give insight into O'Reilly's work by showing that he views the body objectively, as classical sculptors or painters did, and as the center of his world, rather than as puritanically taboo and off-limits to art production. Joining his own body, often in erotic or even pornographic poses, with famous artists or with Christian iconography — O'Reilly lost belief in the Catholic faith as a youth — is a way of engaging with the world and constructing some tangible evidence of his personal identity. In one wonderful montage, he poses seductively with Walt Whitman. In another, he pictures himself dancing with Picasso. O'Reilly's certainly not lacking for humor.

In an interview, the artist once said that he differed with the gay movement's isolationist practices and wants his often literal homosexual imagery and emotional content to be integrated into a dialogue with art and our culture, just as most heterosexual artists do. His desire is completely realized in his work.

Historically, photomontage has been used as a way to quickly and dramatically get at an idea — that's one reason the technique was favored by the political dada and Russian constructivist artists. Especially in the case of O'Reilly, photomontage is also used as a way to seamlessly bring two or more unexpected and sometimes conflicting images together to create a surprising idea. In this explosive way, this form of-art-making is as close to the act of thinking as anything in the visual art world, and in O'Reilly's hands, almost becomes as nuanced as the act of writing.

The "Death in Venice" series is as engaging as a powerful story, and it's where we see the complexity of O'Reilly's process. The work is based upon Thomas Mann's iconic novel, often seen as a homosexual anthem in which the aging writer Aschenback becomes obsessed with and stalks a young Polish boy named Tadzio. The late pieces, entitled "Tadzio Series," are exquisite scenarios that layer history, contemporary reality, sexuality, the constructive process and personal revelation.

Each montage in the "Death in Venice" series includes a portrait of the artist as an adolescent or another boy lifted from a magazine. (To her horror, O'Reilly cut up his mother's cherished photo album to use in his art.) The central image, for example, in "Death in Venice Jumper" is an adolescent boy leaping to catch a Frisbee. Mounted around him are an Egyptian nude statue, a drawing of brawny men, easels and other accoutrements of the artist's studio, and countless images of art history and architecture, tossed up helter-skelter by a synthetic sea made of black plastic. Read simply, this is an assertion of an individual's self-made identity. It's also evidence of the arduous task and often provisional process by which we get to know ourselves.


John O'Reilly runs through Jan. 20 at Susanne Hilberry Gallery, 700 Livernois, Ferndale; 248-541-4700.

Glen Mannisto writes about art for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]