Naked Eye

No matter: once he began using his own photographs, O'Reilly's already multilayered collages took on often astonishing complexity. His tiny stages exploded into meticulously crafted panoramas crammed with detail: mirrored fun houses of allusion and illusion. He created a series of chaotic miniature museums where classic statues, famous paintings, and children's building blocks served as foils for and extensions of his geeky, feisty nakedness. It was as if O'Reilly were carving out a space for himself—an aging, all-but-invisible gay man—both in art history and in society.

"Art clothes my nakedness," O'Reilly tells Tellin in the introduction to a catalogue of his many self-portraits. "I can expose myself more daringly, yet safely, while in the roles of artist or model." Some of his most memorable montages take on religious art with the sort of bracing blasphemy only a lapsed Catholic can carry off. In Memorial I, O'Reilly, his patchwork head at the center of the frame, is cradled in the embrace of a muscular, ecstatic Christ whose mismatched hands grasp the artist's thick head of blond hair. O'Reilly sets this charged moment in a marvelous, illusionistic space that, like so many of his backdrops, is made up of endless reflections—grand, ephemeral, and buzzing with possibility.


John O’Reilly
Julie Saul Gallery
560 Broadway
Through July 2

"Ambivalence is one of the main themes of my art," O'Reilly says, and the series that he began showing publicly in the early '80s have explored that ambivalence with remarkable intelligence, subtlety, and what Klaus Kertess, the curator who included him in the Whitney Biennial, calls "a crystalline audacity." "I'm thrusting a gay image into a heterosexual world," O'Reilly says, "creating a kind of challenge with it, demanding that it be acknowledged. Foucault talks about how people who are marginalized and pushed off to the side have to be cruel and aggressive and smash that humanistic culture we're living in. So on the one side, I'm very sympathetic to all these things that I'm portraying, and on the other side, I'm tearing it apart." In O'Reilly's photomontages, those tears are absolutely literal, but what he's pasted back together—a world at once playful and provocative, private and public, rudely appropriated and wholly original—is infinitely more than the sum of its parts.

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