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Art Review

O’Reilly: life, pieced together

John O’Reilly’s “Nocturne #12’’ is a photo montage that includes a sleeping soldier, a giant sculpted head, and a tennis player. John O’Reilly’s “Nocturne #12’’ is a photo montage that includes a sleeping soldier, a giant sculpted head, and a tennis player.
By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / December 25, 2009

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Photographic collage can be the most tiresome of artistic techniques. Sure, it’s fun to do, and you can get momentarily diverting results with minimum effort. But in any but the most sensitive hands, the images produced are so easily achieved and yet so arbitrary - so simperingly “surreal’’ - as to make the eyes glaze over and the mind revolt.

That’s my own particular prejudice. What I’m happy to report is that it has been completely overturned by the extraordinary “John O’Reilly: Art From Four Decades’’ at the Howard Yezerski Gallery.

The show, selected by guest curator and friend of the artist Trevor Fairbrother, is a revelation: as exuberant and yet private, as full of secret yearning and yet remote as a muted fireworks display on the other side of a lake.

Photography is always like that: over there. But O’Reilly’s way with photomontage - his combination of intellectual wit and eroticism (in most cases homoeroticism) - is also intimately present and even conversational. We are invited into these images, which shimmer with art history quotations, frank avowals of desire, and playful meditations on the artist’s predicament.

In selecting the show, Fairbrother says in a brief introductory wall text, he used O’Reilly’s early “Self-Portrait’’ from 1965 as “a sort of talisman.’’ It is indeed a striking early statement of purpose, which whispers of desire, foreboding, and confusion.

On a background of an Old Master drawing of trees and buildings, O’Reilly has superimposed a teasingly odd cast of figures, among them a Greek or Roman statue with a blackbird perched on its shoulder and O’Reilly’s bespectacled head on its neck; a naked couple out of Picasso’s Blue Period; Albrecht Dürer’s engraving known as “Nemesis, Or the Large Fortune’’; a photograph of a male dancer; a lizard; and two stumpy creatures with human faces resembling something out of Hieronymus Bosch.

The plentiful white areas in the background drawing give the image an airy quality missing from many of O’Reilly’s later collages, in which space contracts and he works harder to construct satisfying unities. Remarkably, he seems never to have settled into a formula, which makes his success all the more laudable.

What electrifies O’Reilly’s images is his insistent self-consciousness. Through glimpses of studio interiors, or cameras and tripods, or the artist’s own face, we are always reminded of his presence and encouraged to participate in his complex games of make-believe. (I kept thinking of Matisse’s description of the North African harem he contrived in his Nice hotel room: “Everything was fake, absurd, amazing, delicious,’’ he said.)

There are too many works, each of such enormous visual complexity, for any verbal description of the show to gain much traction. And yet many individual images stand out.

“Nocturne #12,’’ for instance, is a montage that sets a photograph of a seated soldier, asleep, against images of rubble and a giant, overturned sculpted head. It also includes a photograph of a shirtless tennis player and a dark, speckled piece of paper with a torn edge that poetically conjures a night sky.

It seems to say something essential about the experience of war, without a hint of bombast or rhetoric, and it makes a perfect pendant piece for a nearby montage called simply “War.’’ In this, Manet’s famous painting “The Fifer’’ is combined with photographs of soldiers, O’Reilly himself as a nude, and another male nude hanging upside down by a rope - a sly allusion, perhaps, to the “Disasters of War’’ prints by Goya (who in turn inspired Manet’s most famous military image, “The Execution of Maximilian’’).

Allusions to art history are fine, but they can be tedious if the image itself does not cohere, or if it simply teems with arbitrary detail. But it’s impossible not to admire, in O’Reilly’s “War,’’ the contrast between the image’s strict classical balance and the complexity of its pictorial space, with its transparent broken glass, its mirror imagery, and the distant threshold through which can be seen dazzling sunlight. The eye is led in and out, trapped in shallow space one moment, then thrust into a distance that on deeper consideration turns out to be a reflection of something behind the camera, and so on. . . . The game seems unending.

Fairbrother has added interest to the show by including a few works by other artists - not exactly source material, but certainly contributions to the “conversation.’’ There is a photograph of boys wrestling by Clarence White; a brown ink drawing of the “Massacre of the Innocents’’ by a follower of Giulio Romano; and a Rembrandt etching. There are also two display cases, one inspired by Joseph Cornell, the other by Max Ernst, both important 20th-century precursors for the kind of art O’Reilly makes.

In the 1980s, O’Reilly gave new life to the trusty old subject of the artist in his studio. He presented himself in “With an English Model’’ (Gainsborough’s famous “The Blue Boy,’’ his trousers hanging suggestively from a hook on the wall); “In Picasso’s Studio’’ (O’Reilly posing comically as Oedipus out of Ingres’s “Oedipus and the Sphinx’’); and “As Gilles,’’ with the head of Watteau’s “Gilles’’ superimposed on O’Reilly’s naked body, a camera slung around his neck.

Despite his frank enjoyment of male nudity, O’Reilly’s interests ultimately transcend sexual proclivities of any one kind. The show’s most poignant image, to my mind, was “Of Henry James,’’ a complex orchestration that included the speckled-paper-as-night-sky from “Nocturne #12,’’ two images of boys’ heads, and a smattering of photographs arranged as if tossed negligently on the studio floor.

Like all O’Reilly’s imagery, “Of Henry James’’ seems concerned with thickets of desire and thwarted love, with incommunicable reveries, with the difficulty of navigating transitional states (from boyhood to manhood), and with the simple, discombobulating loveliness of being.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com

ART REVIEW

JOHN O’REILLY: Art From Four Decades

At: Howard Yezerski Gallery, through Jan. 5. 617-262-0550, www.howardyezerski gallery.com

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