No one was more surprised than John O’Reilly when he found himself thrust into the muddied limelight of the 1995 Whitney Biennial—a 65-year-old virtual unknown sharing space with art stars like Cindy Sherman, Brice Marden, Charles Ray, Nan Goldin, and Mike Kelley. “It was beyond my thinking,” he told a reporter at the time, and he still seems cheerfully baffled. “I suppose I really see myself as this lone individual floating out there,” he says. “I don’t associate myself with other artists. I know I’m part of everything, but I don’t feel part of this or that movement.”
No wonder. Though O’Reilly’s black-and-white Polaroid collages engage the same issues of identity, sexuality, and marginalization that absorb so many younger artists (including a substantial number of his fellow Biennialites, from Catherine Opie to Julio Galán), his work is considerably more hermetic. Perhaps because O’Reilly worked for years with no thought of showing his intricate little pictures, they have the timeless quality of much obsessive art and, along with their maker, appear utterly oblivious of their place in the contemporary art market. Like Joseph Cornell, a defining influence, and Lucas Samaras, the only photographer he’d cite as an inspiration, O’Reilly has created a miniaturized, theatrical, and brilliantly allusive world of his own. The richness and depth of that world is evident in the 33 pieces gathered for the “Photomontage Survey: 1967–1999” now at Julie Saul (560 Broadway, through July 2; another survey is at Boston’s Howard Yezerski Gallery through July 6). Since the earliest of these collages was made when the artist was just shy of 40, even the most minimal have formidable assurance, sly wit, and an effortless command of both art-historical vocabulary and sexual semiotics.
“You might say that art history is my mythical world,” O’Reilly has remarked. Though he occupies that world most fully in his photomontages—many of which incorporate nude self-portraits along with choice bits of Rembrandt, Eakins, De Chirico, or Picassohas provided psychic shelter for nearly all of his adult life. Born in 1930, O’Reilly grew up solidly middle class in Red Bank, New Jersey, and, ever practical, headed to Syracuse University to become an illustrator. But when his illustrations turned out to look more like Modigliani than Norman Rockwell, he took up painting, got his 1956 M.F.A. from the Art Institute of Chicago, and taught art history and design courses at the University of New Hampshire. After four years of that, however, he and his companion, James Tellin, also an artist, left for Spain to do nothing but paint.
“We couldn’t afford oil paints or anything, so I worked in pastels,” O’Reilly—genial, bespectacled, balding, and still with Tellin some 40 years later—recounts. “And when I ran out of those and was nearing time to come home, I started ripping up everything I didn’t like and making collages.” The pictures that O’Reilly had been drawing were, as he puts it, “abstractions of me” that he threaded with references to gay poets like Federico García Lorca and Constantine Cavafy, and his early ’60s collages were equally abstract. But when he returned to the States, the work gradually became more graphic and less painterly, juxtaposing photos from gay porn magazines, reproductions from art books, and a wide variety of commercial illustration with almost fetishistic finesse.
O’Reilly and Tellin taught briefly upon their return but ended up sharing a job as art therapist at a mental hospital in Worcester, Massachusetts, for 27 years; after retiring together in 1991, they’ve remained in the town. Encouraging mental patients to be artistically “free and open” gave a similarly liberating boost to O’Reilly’s work: “Taking off my clothes and running around the room naked—I doubt that I would have done that otherwise.” He’d already been making identity-melting images in which he merged physically with artists he admired—Chardin, Degas, Genet—and his work with schizophrenic patients sparked even more flamboyant fusions. But until he bought a Polaroid camera in 1984, the naked bodies in his work always belonged to other men. “Because I’m so thin,” he says. “I always felt out of it, even as a kid.” So while it took some nerve to pose nude, even if only Tellin and a few close friends were likely to see the results, O’Reilly soon found himself “going wild with it.” In a picture from this period, Preparing a Pose, the pale, spindly artist flings himself into a comically awkward stance atop a fruit crate in what appears to be Picasso’s studio as the master waits nearby. In another, he sits nude, rumpled, and enormous behind a canvas in the Velázquez atelier, evesdropping on the creation of Las Meninas.
“I feel like I’m Everyman in those pictures,” O’Reilly says. “Since most of us aren’t Adonises, it leaves room for a lot of people to identify.” The Polaroid gave him more freedom to “create a little world for myself,” allowing him to rephotograph source material, insert himself as an antic, pivotal presence in the work, and adjust everything to the same seductively intimate scale. But taking photos was only a means to an end. “I have no film background, no photographic background,” he says, and, as much as he admires the medium, he doesn’t call himself a photographer; he’s “a montagist, using photography.”
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.
“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.