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Studio Visit: John O'Reilly

Ground up bones and porcelain dust in a series of biological sculptures

by James Thorne in Culture on 02 March 2012

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In advance of his first solo exhibition "I stand and look at them long and long" at RH Gallery, we stopped by John O'Reilly's Brooklyn studio to see what the young artist had on tap. The warehouse space is shared between four sculptural artists working with communal equipment and unparalleled resourcefulness. O'Reilly, for his part, mixes porcelain with bone powder and polyrethane resin to cast realistic biological altarpieces from silicone molds.

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The artist let us in on the process behind his creations, which all start off as clay models. Silicone is applied by brush to the clay forms until the film reaches a 1/4-inch thickness. The mold is cut along a set of seams and reattached in a plaster mastermold for rigidity. The bone powder comes from his dog's leftovers, pulverized in the studio and added to the resin and porcelain mixture to create a translucent, off-white coloration.

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To create the forms, O'Reilly pulls from his experience with silverpoint drawing. "I've only been doing sculpture for the last two or three years," he explains. "I look at these things as drawings in space—just a line that connects to another line. And you keep configurating a matrix of lines to create the form." Standing in front of a wire approximation of his subject, the artist uses dabs of clay on a stick to apply and modify the shapes. When he finds a line he likes, he builds the entire piece around it.

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The artist chose porcelain for its likeness to skin. "It's got that ghost-like, transcendental quality," says O'Reilly. For the works in black, he added graphite to the resin mixture and finished the surface with another graphite application. The centerpiece work "Welle" is a graphite sculpture of a dead pup. When asked about the high-contrast, emaciated quality of his subjects, the artists explains, "It feels like the more I can dig in, the more I can release energy from the piece. And that's basically what you're trying to do—to create a circulatory system of lines, a matrix of feelings and emotions."

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While he enjoys sculpture, O'Reilly sees the laborious process as an ultimate hindrance to creativity. "Origins" is a wall piece that shows the cavity of a pig and is inspired by Andy Warhol's series of Rorschach paintings. While he was working on the piece—which can take months—the artist developed a method of molding paint inside a folded, translucent sheet. O'Reilly sees potential in the series of inkblot-style X-rays, though the work won't be featured in the upcoming exhibition.

Many of the pieces bear the mark of the artist's Christian upbringing. The off-white color is reminiscent of the Italian marbles from renaissance masters, and the artist freely refers to his works as altarpieces. The anguished expressiveness of the occasionally mutilated forms is balanced by the calm placidity of others, both attributes recalling biblical moments and emotions.

"I stand and look at them long and long" opens 6 March, 2012 at the RH Gallery in New York. See more images of O'Reilly's studio in our slideshow.

RH Gallery
137 Duane Street
New York, NY 10013

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