The Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) Chicago presents Chicago-based multimedia artist William J. O’Brien’s first major survey exhibition. Best known for his work in ceramics, O’Brien’s exhibition features his prolific output in a range of media including sculpture, drawing, assemblage, and painting. Cultural sources, such as art history, ethnography, spirituality, pop, and poetics, strongly inform his work and his ever-expanding scope of influence. William J. O’Brien includes more than 130 objects demonstrating the artist’s prolific output in various media that offers a visual profusion of color, pattern, and exuberant excess. This exhibition is organized by Naomi Beckwith, Marilyn and Larry Fields Curator at MCA Chicago, and is on view January 25 - May 18, 2014.
O’Brien’s highly physical practice, while not categorized by any one artistic style or medium, is characterized by a kinetic use of the body and materials. His fast line drawings, whether black and white or strikingly colorful, textured, and geometric, mimic the spontaneous drawings of the Surrealists or psychedelia. These energetic, vibrant shapes are the formal and conceptual starting point for all of his work, also appearing in his assemblages and textiles.
O’Brien also creates sculptural metal works made of welded die-cut shapes and ceramics that connect to a range of cultural references. His ceramics, which are formed and glazed with vivid, bold colors, look like ethnographic objects of the ancient past and “face-jugs” reminiscent of those of the Antebellum American South. O’Brien’s paintings are accumulations of pigment, fabric, string, and other materials, and with these materials, the pieces can look like they are drooping off of the wall. Beckwith’s curatorial vision is to show shared traits that emerge across O’Brien’s work, and the range of objects he creates.
The organization of the exhibition is influenced by O’Brien’s interest in language and poetry. Like a poem, the exhibition is divided into sections, or stanzas, with each section featuring works in several media. This arrangement underscores the connections between objects, and with poetics as an organizational method, the exhibition explores O’Brien’s abstract artworks differently than the ways in which they have been exhibited previously. Beckwith highlights O’Brien’s process rather than focusing entirely on his technique.
O’Brien earned an MFA in fiber and material studies from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2005, the same year he presented his first solo exhibition as part of the UBS 12 x 12 series at the MCA. O’Brien has exhibited internationally, and has a show in Paris at the Almine Rech Gallery running concurrently with his presentation at the MCA. Recent solo exhibitions also include Wet 'N Wild, Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York, NY (2013); Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, Overland Park, Kansas (2012); Works on Paper, SHAHEEN Modern and Contemporary Art, Cleveland, Ohio (2011); and the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago, Chicago (2011).