Damned By The Rainbow: Justin Liam O'Brien's Stunning Intimacy On Display in Berlin
Americans celebrate independence on July 4, and so will Justin Liam O'Brien, as he opens Damned by the Rainbow on this date at the GNYP Gallery in Berlin. In this new body of work, the NYC-based O’Brien presents new paintings created in the last year, reflecting the artist’s exploration of intimacy and the ensuing emotions that emerge in shared personal space. The global pandemic and lockdown had a strong influence on the outcome of this series of work, but in a surprising way, as suggested in this verse from French poet, Arthur Rimbaud: "I had been damned by the rainbow. Felicity was my doom, my gnawing remorse, my worm: my life would forever be too large to devote to strength and to beauty."
"(The poem) resonates with the fact that, at times, I struggle to connect with large aspects of gay culture," O'Brien explains about his fixation with this line in Rimbaud's A Season in Hell. "I think I resist being in a group that seems to be so intensely prescriptive with how its members should behave. These things may serve to make life as a homosexual better, but ironically, I frequently feel alienated because of then— that they even make my life more complicated than it was before. So the title and the show are about this backward feeling of otherness within a community of others. Feeling alone in a room full of people and not understanding exactly why. My hope is that people can connect with this idea and that maybe the work can initiate a dialogue about it."
O'Brien's work has blossomed on so many levels since last year’s showcase at New York City’s Monya Rowe Gallery. We see a brighter, more vibrant range of colors, while the compositions have become more fluid in their style and diversity of subject matter. This exhibition feels like a big step forward, whose past figurative work was clearly his center of focus. Here, he boldly steps out and away from it, using perspective, depth, pattern, light, and objects to intensify the scenes. Color scheme and compact composition sustain an exquisite tension.
Coming from a digital animation background, it took some time for the artist to break out from the strictures imposed by the computer screens and fully embrace the freedom of paint on canvas. This big change is noticeable in this series as he references classical pieces such as Hugh Steers' Blue Rug, a frame from Portrait of a Lady on Fire, all the way to works by his own personal friends. "I was interested in opening a new dialogue with them, a kind of collaboration," he explains. "I thought it might tap into something more profound than just making works based on my own sketches, and could also be a kind of survey of the relationship itself. Turning over a rock and looking at all the bugs underneath comes to mind. I wanted to engage with them in a rather personal and potentially uncomfortable way."
And while the colors got brighter, skin tones richer, drapery and painterly elements more layered, the ambiance of the work remains. Admittedly, the stories now take place in bigger, more open spaces. "I spent a lot of time this year looking at monographs of Reubens, Hugh Steers and George Tooker. I also kept googling work by Diego Rivera and Nicole Eisenmann. "The rigidity of my work beforehand felt claustrophobic, the air sucked out of the space. A friend told me it was like staring into a corner of the room, which felt accurate. I felt enabled to open up the room for this body of work." With much of the inspiration coming from his own life experiences, the scenes depict relatable moments of loneliness, whether in snapshots of life in a partnership or within the public life. Focused on distilling the pure intensity of a moment, beyond the physical depiction, O'Brien bravely unfurls emotional independence . —Sasha Bogojev