The New York-based artist Justin Liam O’Brien (b. 1991) juxtaposes young male figures in scenes of queer intimacy, companionship, affection, but often also loneliness. His work emphasises capturing moments inspired by more personal affairs. Very often, the concept of duos prevails on the surface of his canvases where naked body silhouettes appear attached in tangled scenes and positions. Cuddling bodies represent the artist’s concept of guilt-free male figures who openly show love and affection. While the depiction of connected bodies is in the epicentre of his paintings, they can be also perceived as mentally detached from the rest of the world. One tight hug can be a safe, peaceful place to be.
Words: Yannis Kostarias
Moreover, the artist’s imagery showcases one-man figure paintings in which the dynamics of the visualization embrace different qualities. Feelings of loneliness are rather evident with naked bodies lazily lounging or having been asleep. Lack of enthusiasm or concern is also remarkably depicted by the artist in paintings such as ‘We can’t dwell on what could’ve been’ or ‘If he’s not here, then where?’. More intimate moments are revealed when the visual story concentrates on erotic pleasure such as hands touching lower body parts. A bulge or an erect penis is also shamelessly captured showcasing what boys can do during their leisure time. O’Brien interestingly knows how to build a relationship with his protagonists and how to depict their emotional state. Regardless whether his creations are imaginary or real events, the artist manages to convey genuine and deep-rooted emotions.
The titles convey significant importance about the artworks input. The artist uses emotional naming; their titles are rather direct in meaning, but also render a poetic dimension. Additionally, their quite long sentences provide helpful details about the message of the paintings’ narratives.
At another level, the visual construction presents its own significance. Parts of the body seem to be in the microscope in which O’Brien examines particularly such as hands, legs, fingers or faces. Zooming in on these silhouettes, the painting style gives an abstract glimpse. His well-rounded shapes and forms signify his artistry. The facial features reveal innocent and quiet characters placed in a dreamlike atmosphere. The imbued serenity in his compositions as well as the figures’ knotted position is reminiscent of the atmosphere at an embryonic state in the uterus. His chromatic palette attracts hues and tints, which lead the result into unperturbed imageries.
Painted with tenderness, his works have an evident rhythm designating his arrangements while bodily flexibility enhances the recurring motion and coherence of the painting. In paintings such as ‘Tell me you’ve got me, sweetheart’ or ‘I feel as if I were protecting you’, the painted figures have their forms elongated—rendering an additional abstract character his figurative style. The stretched forms present a well-balanced rounded appearance while avoiding comparisons with irregular, semi-bulbous bodily formations. The relative volume of the artist’s bodily geometries is executed with equal proportions enabling the painting result to remain upright and symmetrical.
Born in Flushing, New York, O’Brien (b. 1991) lives and works in Brooklyn. In 2013, the artist completed his studies in Visual Arts at SUNY Suffolk, and in 2016, he received his BFA in Digital Arts from Pratt Institute. He was also the recipient of the Pratt Presidential Merit Based Scholarship in 2015. ‘Rose-tinted’ was his last two-person exhibition with Celeste Rapone at Monya Rowe Gallery in New York.
Art Verge: Can you tell us about the process of making your work?
Justin Liam O’Brien: I start with making drawings in a sketchbook that I keep with me at all times. I work full-time in the city, so I make most of these in transit between there and home. Once I have a drawing that I like, I revise it until it’s clearly articulating a feeling and has a tight composition. Then I draw it on a canvas and do a wash of color to start. I progressively add layers of paint over a few weeks to get to a finished painting. Oil paint is great for this because of its transparency. After a few layers of it, the painting starts to glow.
How would you define your work in a few words (ideally in 3 words)?
Loopy queer figure painting!
Can you name any artists you, lately or generally, take inspiration from?
I think my most direct inspirations right now are Fernand Leger, Tarsila do Armal, Diego Rivera, and Renoir. But it’s more that I like the way their works are made more than what they’re about. The artists that really crush me don’t belong to one specific moment, but there are a few that I always think about: Adolf Gottlieb, Grant Wood, Giorgio de Chirico, Peter Hujar, David Wojnarowicz, Paul Cadmus. It’s all different work but I feel a similar kind of pit in my stomach about it all. There’s a sense of quiet longing or gravity that radiates from the work of these artists. It feels humbling.
Observing your work, it seems that your male-dominated paintings capture romantic, intimate and rather eccentric moments; how does the notion of masculinity involve aesthetic motivations that you rely on or draw inspiration from?
I’m not sure I think much about the masculine or feminine when I make work. I’m more concerned with communicating a lived feeling within the space of an intimate queer moment. I make pictures about this using the male body in particular because it reflects my own experience as a queer person. It makes it my painting about it authentic in a way. But it’s less about the male figure or the male body. I’m certainly attracted to men, but I draw very little inspiration from masculinity.
Are the feelings of loneliness or isolation significant motifs within your painterly narratives?
I think so. Exploring and expounding loneliness and isolation feels like a significant part of my work. But I also like to make work about the other side of the spectrum, and also make work that gets lost in between. Making paintings that explore a complete range of my feelings about queer intimacy feels like I’m mapping out my heart. I think doing this opens up a dialogue between the viewer and myself. The dialogue is what I love most about making the work.
Could you share with us some further details regarding your recent painting named ‘Stay in my arms, if you dare’, (2018)?
Sure! it’s a painting of two male figures, cropped in close, entangled, and reaching around each other in an abstract space. I made that painting in July or August of last year when I was still coming away from painting figures in a more rigid, square-ish sort of way. I knew from early sketches that I wanted the composition to be a really pronounced “S” Shape. I also knew I wanted my under painting to be hard red and blue, and to work flesh tones over it. It’s a painting about back and forth, about struggle behind the face of immediate pleasure. I thought this under painting approach would reinforce that feeling. What I like so much about it is that the picture is both a moment of intimacy, something sexual and personal, but it looks like they also might be wrestling or fighting. Their facial expressions are sort of strained, not pleased, as they would be in sex. After a moment, you wonder what the figures are actually feeling, even though at first glance it appears to be pleasure.
How do you know when a painting is finished?
It’s never certain! I could keep working on any painting I finish really. It gets to a point where I ask myself if the changes I want to make to the thing are worth the effort, or worth compromising the picture as it exists. If the answer is no, the painting is done.
What about the place where you work? What’s your studio space like, and how does it affect your process?
At the moment, I’m working on paintings at home in my apartment. I left my studio at Trestle Projects in December, and just recently squared away a studio space in South Brooklyn starting in June. It’s both a blessing and a curse to have my work right there in my home. It feels like I’m both always working on paintings and not working enough. I’ll be happy to have a proper studio again in June!
Which exhibition did you visit last?
Colin Radcliffe’s show “Left on Read” at Equity Gallery in the LES! He’s a fantastic sculptor and a good friend.
What do you hope audiences will take from your work?
The idea that they’re not crazy or alone having the feelings they do.
Are you a morning person or a night owl?
Is the glass half empty or half full?
Probably half empty, but I really don’t like to think about it in those terms. I prepare for the worst and hope for the best. But I also prefer to not think about it, I like to focus on the more positive stuff.
Which are your plans for the near future?
I have a couple of shows in the works over the next 6-8 months that I’m very excited about, the biggest of which will be a solo show with Monya Rowe gallery, opening October 10th!
© All images are courtesy of Monya Rowe Gallery and the artist