Saturday, June 11, 2011

Review: William J. O'Brien @ The Renaissance Society

Seven months ago, Rebecca Warren was pilloried in the local press after her exhibition at the University of Chicago's Renaissance Society.[1] Foresight, at least, was lacking in that criticism.

Given the benefit of hindsight, it's now possible to argue that Warren's whole spatial exercise was evidence of her superiority to the clay sculptor, namely William J. O'Brien, who succeeded her in the aforementioned space. More ironically, given her personal investment in the primal modelling of a plastic material, Warren can now be seen as having psychologically prepared the Chicago audience for O'Brien.

William J. O’Brien @ The Renaissance Society
Above: William J. O'Brien @ The Renaissance Society

And it's a great mystery why no one has thought to reappraise Warren, even as O'Brien is now praised.[2]

Warren, like a sculptor, concerned herself with the formal qualities of shape, line, scale, texture, and mass; her choice and handling of material varied from piece-to-piece. Notably, Warren's objects were not in any case so heavily pigmented that an essential substance was obscured; nor did she ever employ a vivid hue. Color, simply, was not a strong visual element in Warren's compositions; color was weak, though not conspicuous in its weakness.

Too, conceptually, it's good to remember that Rebecca Warren's action against historical sculptural modes and forms necessitated at least some understanding thereof.[3]

William J. O’Brien @ The Renaissance Society
Above: William J. O'Brien @ The Renaissance Society

William J. O'Brien's work at the Renaissance Society is altogether different: color is often strong; gloss is often thick; and not much else is exciting--in a formal sense. Whatever the pieces might mean in relation to the history of painting or ceramics, when one considers O'Brien's production as "sculpture," it's difficult to be satisfied. What is it--other than surface treatment and firing--which accounts for the variance between the receptions of Warren and O'Brien? Is O'Brien's work (at the Renaissance Society) something other than statuary, i.e., free-standing, three-dimensional, art which a viewer encounters in the round?

Was Warren an "easy target" for local critics by virtue of her foreign residence? Had she attended SAIC rather than Goldsmiths would Warren have received the same treatment? It does seem good to acknowledge that while his (O'Brien's) work looks like Art Brut, in Chicago O'Brien is anything but an outsider.[4] In fact, that which the local "art community" is able to give--it has given to O'Brien very quickly.[5] One is made to wonder: Why?

William J. O’Brien @ The Renaissance Society
Above: William J. O'Brien @ The Renaissance Society

It seems to be the case that (roughly) eighteen months ago, at Marianne Boesky Gallery in New York, William J. O'Brien presented modestly-scaled, polychromatic, ceramic pieces upon an elegant, rectangular tabletop.[6] And the current display at the Renaissance Society differs chiefly (only) in that it involves the gathering of an even larger number of clay lumps, all of which have been shifted to a custom-fabricated, heavy-plywood, T-form, multi-tiered plinth.[7]

William J. O’Brien @ The Renaissance Society
Above: William J. O'Brien @ The Renaissance Society

A spectator in Chicago (or New York) might be hard-pressed to identify any one work sitting on that plywood as a "virtuoso piece." O'Brien's output is strikingly regular, and crude; it evidences no "higher" academic or technical training. Is it precisely that "democratic" manifestation, that "community of objects," which is found to be praiseworthy? Would a people hostile to the idea of distinction, even in appearance, want, or need, art like O'Brien's art?

William J. O’Brien @ The Renaissance Society
Above: William J. O'Brien @ The Renaissance Society

There does seem at this moment to be a "rising tide" of young Chicago artists engaged in the business of cobbling found objects, and molding common materials, in a manner which belies the "advanced" degrees (usually) held by the makers. The phenomenon seems not disconnected from Arte Povera in form or (invoked) theory; Art Brut has already been mentioned. In the looming shadow of fine art PhD programs, one is made to wonder quite seriously about the content of existing MFA programs: how are they necessary, or even helpful, for this sort of movement?

William J. O’Brien @ The Renaissance Society
Above: William J. O'Brien @ The Renaissance Society

Whether it's found within the artwork, or in some speech or text which exists apart from the artwork, ought not an expression *from the artist* to have the effect of suggesting a refinement, i.e., a subtlety and complexity of thought or insight, which has been cultivated within his or her person? When such evidence is thin, or lacking altogether, one is made to wonder not only about particular exhibitions, or personalities, but about the systems which produce and support them.

The Neo-Povera and Faux Brut get the laurels here and now; it's a time of New Brutes.

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William J. O'Brien
May 15 – June 26, 2011
Tuesday - Friday: 10:00 am - 5:00 pm
Saturday, Sunday: 12:00 am - 5:00 pm
Closed Mondays
The Renaissance Society
Bergman Gallery, Cobb Hall 418
5811 S. Ellis Avenue
Chicago, Illinois
Exhibitions at The Renaissance Society are free of charge.

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Above: "Review: Rebecca Warren/The Renaissance Society," by Jason Foumberg, October 11, 2010

See also:
Above: Claudine Ise and Meg Onli name Foumberg's review above as "Best of 2010" on Decmber 31, 2010:
"Best critical review of an internationally acclaimed artist: Jason Foumberg’s review of Rebecca Warren’s exhibition at The Renaissance Society..."

Above: "Review: William J. O’Brien/Renaissance Society," by Jason Foumberg, May 30, 2011


[4] O'Brien's position within Chicago's "art world," as defined by his on-line bio, is characterized by multiple, overlapping points of contact with prominent figures and institutions.

For example:

O'brien's bio lists a solo exhibition in 2010 at Shane Campbell Gallery, Oak Park, IL.[a] Shane Campbell Gallery, Oak Park, IL, provides the same address (125 N. Harvey Avenue Oak Park, Illinois 60302) as Artforum critic Michelle Grabner's "domestic" gallery space (The Suburban) and home.[b] O'brien's bio lists a 2008 review written by Michelle Grabner.[c] O'brien and Michelle Grabner are two of the twenty artists currently listed on the Shane Campbell Gallery roster.[d] Both William J. O'Brien and Michelle Grabner are School of the Art Institute employees.[e]


O'brien's bio lists his participation in the group exhibition "New Icon," at Loyola University Museum of Art, Chicago, IL, in 2010.[f] The group show "New Icon," at Loyola University Museum of Art, was curated by Britton Bertran.[g] Britton Bertran served as Individual Artists Awards Coordinator for The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.[h] The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation is a partner organization of Artadia.[i] O'brien's bio lists the 2007 receipt (Artadia lists 2006) of an Artadia grant.[j] The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation lists its 2008 funding of both Artadia and Britton Bertran.[k] Both William J. O'Brien and Britton Bertran are School of the Art Institute employees.[l]















Above: Chicago Tribune reporter Lauren Viera's interview of MCA Chief Curator Michael Darling, August 01, 2010:

Darling: "...maybe people are looking for a museum to give the stamp of approval on them before they're launched onto the next level. That kind of advocacy for artists is something that I'm really excited about."

Viera: "Do you have anyone in particular in mind?"

Darling: "William J. O'Brien, for instance, is an artist that's kind of come up through Chicago, came through the 12x12 program, is starting to really get some international attention."

Above: Image of tabletop installation in New York.

[7] Per Hamza Walker: Walker himself sketched the T-type installation which was then elaborated upon and executed according to the vision of architect John Vinci. O'Brien did not design or build the pedestal.

- Paul Germanos


  1. Hi Paul,
    I’m well aware that some of Warren and O’Brien’s sculptural forms are very similar, evoking messy piles of intestinal dung. This motif in contemporary ceramics is also clear, as you know from my review of Warren’s show in Newcity, which traced a short history of poopy ceramics from Lucio Fontana to Warren, including Bill O’Brien. That said, I felt it unnecessary to compare the two artists in my current review because I wanted to celebrate O’Brien’s work without muddying or miring it in the recent past. (But it is funny that the Renaissance Society had 2 like-minded exhibitions so near in their calendar!). I think you begin to parse a distinction between the two sculptors by highlighting O’Brien’s interest in craft and Art Brut (but could it also be practical—that O’Brien teaches ceramics at a community art center?). To me it’s fascinating to also look at what each artist references: Warren revises minimalism; O’Brien revises artifacts. One context is fascinating while the other trite. Anyway, I still do not care to reassess Warren in light of O’Brien. O’Brien’s sculptures are alive, Warren’s are without character. The difference is slight but important, and a matter of taste (and yes, a critical point of view can/should consider taste value---even O’Brien’s ‘ugly’ and ‘non-art’ pieces on the table look great).

  2. Jason, thank you for taking the time to read and comment.

    Your (cited) article about Rebecca Warren was most useful because: (a) it was unambiguous; and (b) by virtue of its inclusion in Claudine and Meg's list it was proven to be supported by people other than yourself.

    In truth, I was shocked when I first saw Warren's show. And I'm still trying to move towards a better understanding--both of the show's meaning and also my own reaction.

    What was most obvious at O'Brien's opening was that the mood of the audience was radically different than it had been at Warren's opening; people were enthusiastic about O'Brien's work.

    I struggle (still) to understand whether it was some formal quality, e.g., vivid color and glossy texture, which was present in O'Brien's work and absent in Warren's work, which made O'Brien more palatable to the crowd.

    Was there something else in play: O'Brien's Chicago residency? the fact that Warren went first and so was more startling? gender?

    On that last item, Warren's clay pieces were (I think) of two sorts: (1) figures; and (2) the sort-of piles to which you made reference.

    With regard to the former, I'm struck by the thought that where Warren produced exaggerated chest and buttock, torso-focused, statues, O'Brien showed mask-like clay visages. What one emphasized the other diminished.

    If Warren was like some Venus of Willendorf, O'Brien looked (to me) like something from pre-war (WW I) Picasso, that is to say a direct "borrowing" from a "primitive" but contemporaneous tradition. In either case, whether the artists intend to mock that which now is, the effect is (I think) reminiscent of that which was.

    Within your current review of O'Brien, your use of the word "chorus" caused me to strike it from my own work. That is what is happening here: we're presented with a group of objects whose presence en masse is effective. It does seem legitimate to wonder about the individual components, and whether a collector or curator would need to assemble a certain number of pieces prior to reproducing a "harmonious" and strong showing in another location.

    On the aggregate, Vinci's plinth is of no small consequence. Vinci's hand and eye are to a large degree responsible for what is encountered in the space, I think.

    I sense that either I'm beginning to wander off, or restate the entire review. Suffice it to say that I think O'Brien benefits from the context--the Renaissance Society's hard architectural lines and monochrome interior--in the same way that Jim Lutes benefited in the past, i.e., high contrast. (Again the comparison is to a painter.)