Controversial Conversions

The Addison Art Gallery has found itself home to a spectrum of controversial artwork this year. Following the eye-opening Tricia Brown exhibit, the Addison unveiled an exhibition of John O’Reilly’s work. With subject matter ranging from homosexuality to Nazism, O’Reilly’s work forced the Andover audience to face a new side to the medium of visual arts. Those who visited the exhibition were immediately struck by the juxtaposed graphic images. His pieces were arranged chronologically, showcasing O’Reilly’s development as an artist. In his guided tour of the exhibition, he explained that his progression to more moving photo montages from classical painting was a result of the “individuality” found in the montage. These montages were the most shocking part of the exhibit and included pictures of nude males in positions that could be considered pornographic. O’Reilly, a true artist, has no inhibitions about bringing his personal life into his artwork. The images featured in the gallery mirrored O’Reilly’s experiences, emotions, and opinions. Telling the observers on the tour of his childhood love of the circus, O’Reilly explained that the exhibit’s first collage, a black and white circus including naked men on trapezes, represented his desire to flee from his own problems. In response to his feelings about recent warfare, O’Reilly created a series of pieces memorializing the victims of war. Raw images of military men engaging in sexual conduct reflected his experiences. During the tour, O’Reilly reflected on an experience as a young man when his own homosexuality posed a question about his “ability” as a member of the US military. An army application forced the artist to face the implications of his sexuality. This association with the military later emerged as one of the themes in his artwork. O’Reilly himself appeared in many of the pieces. These montages transposed his image onto well-known masterpieces. O’Reilly felt that by putting himself into the paintings he could feel an “attachment to the myth of art.” He was inspired by the idea that through his art he could become part of the past, and that through him, artwork from the past could be reinvented in the present. Time as an inspiration was a uniting element in the exhibition. During his tour, O’Reilly defended his use of nudity, saying “Nudity makes it timeless,” adding that nudity prevented clothing from limiting him to a specific time or place. In addition to war and history, O’Reilly’s pieces are also representative of his personal conflict with religion and its impact on sexuality. One of the most explicit images in the show involved a Christ-like figure engaging in a sexual activity. In describing his more recent work, O’Reilly emphasized his acceptance of the montage as an art form. While his early work highlighted his efforts to create one seamless whole, later pieces embraced the combination of patently different images. This stylistic progression involved torn edges representing the vulnerability and physical violence in his personal life. O’Reilly also explained that later work reflected his “detachment from the myth of art,” and movement toward more personal expression. The guided tour of the show provided a unique opportunity to glimpse some of the inspiration and ideas behind John O’Reilly’s work. The exhibition featured in the Addison Art Gallery includes some of his more controversial and explicit pieces, and O’Reilly was able to provide insight into his own connection to the deeply personal artwork as well as explaining the vision behind pieces which some might consider offensive. Above all, the tour was a chance to see and hear a man who has captured and displayed so many different aspects of himself in his art.