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John O'Brien
'Rifting on the Diary of a Seducer' at Kristi Engle Gallery, Los Angeles
review by Betty Ann Brown

John O'Brien is interested in the histories and practices of museums. This interest is more in the conceptual tradition of Marcel Broodthaers

John O\'Brien is interested in the histories and practices of museums. This interest is more in the conceptual tradition of Marcel Broodthaers, who created a faux museum in his Musee d\'Art Moderne, Departement des Aigles (1968-1971), than the politicized and particularized institutional critique of artists like Hans Haacke. In O\'Brien\'s newest body of work, \"Rifting on the Diary of a Seducer,\" metal sculptures and paintings that evoke High Modern abstractions are juxtaposed with elegantly altered photographs of the grand exhibition halls in international expositions. A former museum display table is reconfigured as an elongated podium. Three bronze forms that recall Alexander Calder\'s early wire sculptures are positioned atop the table, easily visible and adamantly present, as if spiraling into conscious awareness. Somewhat obscured parts of the bronzes pierce what would have been the tabletop--now an open void--and continue below, hanging like biomorphic pendants swirling through the unconscious. Installed on the wall behind the table are three canvases, their size and color palettes clear allusions to early twentieth-century painting. O\'Brien was thinking of artists like John Altoon, Arthur Dove, and Roberto Matta as he did the three paintings, but the specifics are less important than the fact that the combination of sculpture and paintings refers to the moment in art history when Surrealism began to give way to Abstract Expressionism. The overriding importance of the work of Arshile Gorky in that art historical moment is well known and indeed, the \"seducer\" O\'Brien refers to in his series\' title is Gorky himself.

Also included in O\'Brien\'s new oeuvre are thirteen digitized photographs, each a pairing of positive and negative photographs of World\'s Fair exhibition interiors that have been painted over with brilliantly pigmented acrylic washes and inks. The positive images are inverted and placed at the bottom half of the digital diptychs. The ghostly negatives hover above. Together, they form a photographic memory theater that addresses the practice of selecting and displaying objects of \"natural\" history. They comprise a pictorial archive of the grandiose goals and geographies of international expositions.

Jacques Derrida compared the archive to the role of memory in psychoanalysis. O\'Brien\'s digital archive is, like his skeletal display table, both a \"rift\" on the artists and institutions of early modern culture and a poetic interrogation of the place our continued longing for the modern era holds in our collective awareness.

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