Intimate Bedroom Scenes: An Interview with Justin Liam O'Brien
Justin Liam O'Brien's figurative work has been intriguing us for a while, with their captivating mixture of minimalist form and endlessly rich surface. Imbued with the softest and truest melancholy presentable by a brush on canvas, the gradients and color choices create a calming ambiance depicting mostly male characters in most intimate, fragile moments.
Focused on scenes of loneliness, longing, love, content, and sometimes explicit passion, O'Brien's subjects construct harmonious compositions with their lumpy bodies. Deeply personal and highly artistic these velvety images are easily and universally recognizable and identifiable. While innocent and easy to fall in love on their surface, their background story is usually a less pleasant one, referring to moments of unease.
That said, we were keen to get in touch with Justin and hear more about these works, about the process behind them, and the ways these dreamy images are rendered.
Sasha Bogojev: Where is the soft, melancholic atmosphere in your work coming from?
Justin Liam O'Brien: Technically speaking, just from a lot of blending. I take a brush loaded with paint, put some down on the canvas, and spread it with a larger dry brush. I've been doing this more lately because the softness this creates feels somewhat nostalgic or dreamy in a way that my work previously didn't. I like how it makes the scene feel like an imperfect memory, or a daydream, or something that isn't set in place.
How long have you been developing that visual language?
Roughly for the last five or six months. It's quite new.
Were you going towards achieving it or did it happen by chance?
Definitely. My work was more rigid and abstract before I arrived at the style I'm working in right now. Over the last year, I've progressively shifted more and more into figurative painting. I was looking to capture something more personal and authentic to my own life and queer identity in my work. I felt like I needed the figure to do this. In this transition, I was interested in maintaining focus on all the elements of the abstract painting that I loved - the composition, space, and mood. I feel like I've been able to do to this because of drawing and planning. Going into a painting with a plan (a drawing or otherwise) frees me up to express myself using the medium. I think that's what so satisfying about making this work - it's scratching every itch for me.
So, what are your paintings about?
Mostly I make paintings of nude male figures in interior bedroom scenes sometimes from a specific memory, and sometimes from imagination. The figures aren't really anyone in particular; but, at the same time, are portraits of myself, friends, or someone I've been involved with. I've been thinking a lot about how I relate to the perceived standards and norms of contemporary queer life; using dating/sex apps, being in open relationships, participating in casual sex, drag, leather, etc. At times I feel completely at peace with these things as a participant and member of the culture. And at other times feel simply out of place because of them. So the work becomes these vignettes; moments I imagine or remember that convey these different feelings: loneliness, intimacy, anxiety, lust, heartbreak, and affection. It's a way of processing the back and forth of these constant feelings I have.
Why is it important for you to create work about that?
I think it engages the audience in a discussion about their own feelings of how they themselves fit into contemporary life. We're constantly on our phones making superficial or fleeting connections on an app, but living sincerely and feeling deeply at once. We're emotional beings, and I think this work speaks to that. I think I'm being very candid about myself in these paintings. I'm expressing things about myself in them that I'm not necessarily happy with or proud of. The audience is getting to know me in a very personal way by looking at them. That feels very special to me.
How often do you draw or sketch?
I always prepare a sketch before a painting, whether it's a small doodle or a finished value drawing. I draw every day and it's integral to my practice.
How long do you usually work on a single piece from the initial sketch in order to achieve the complex surface?
Usually between 1-3 weeks. It could be done be much faster but I have very limited time to paint. I also only work on a painting for maybe an hour or two at a time, which I think has some effect on the finished work. I end up amassing a bunch of sketches of potential paintings before I decide what I am going to put on a canvas.
How do you balance the minimal and reduced depiction against and the rich technical aspect of the work?
I just loosely plan things out. I make a drawing, then typically redraw it to make the composition efficiently as I can. This sort of sets up that reduced or minimal feeling because I've paired down the shapes in the drawing. Then I do an underpainting which speaks to the kind of feeling I want the piece to have, and build from there. This makes the process sound way more conscious than it is though, it's way more intuitive in practice.
Do you have any shows up now or you have some coming up in the near future?
Yes! I am in a show coming up with Invisible Exports at SITUATIONS Gallery in the LES which opened on 3/1. Its a group show with some artists I'm very proud to be showing with called FRESH FRUIT. Also, in October, I'm preparing for a solo show at Monya Rowe Gallery!