Art Monthly Australia, July 2012
Conor O’Brien, Photographs 2003-2011, Australian Centre for Photography
by Pedro De Almeida
Oblique, still, tender: qualities marking Conor O’Brien’s approach to picture-making which are in pitch perfect tune with the aesthetic temperament of his subjects. Photographs 2003-2011, recently presented at the Australian Centre for Photography, is O’Brien’s first major survey show, offering a judicious selection and hang of photographs, each printed in various dimensions and set in white box frames, accompanied by a showcase featuring his modest yet highly accomplished artist’s books.
Despite the considered framing, each photograph gives a sense of having been captured with sideways glances, with subjects - a stack of plastic chairs, the facade of a suburban home, a ﬁgure wrapped in a patchwork quilt — presented to the viewer in a contradictory state of state of quiet stillness and delicate transition. Landscapes of green hills, snow-capped mountains and placid bodies of water are diorama-like in their completeness as tiny worlds, whilst the most apparent aspect of O’Brien’s work as presented in this survey is the viewer’s gaze returned., much less challenged: human subjects are presented with eyes closed, with hands covering the face, or altogether turning their backs to the camera.
In Cobain, O’Brien presents a magazine cover of a commemorative issue of Rolling Stone following Kurt Cobain’s suicide, which acts as the singular instance of an eyes-open portrait, significantly in simulacrum. Cobain’s oft-quoted dictum (itself reprised
from the lyrics of Neil Young) that ‘it’s better to burn out than to fade away’, intended as a provocative artistic incitement, is here ignored by O’Brien who shows that he can see beyond this False dichotomy. These photographs show that genuine wonder can exist beyond the Fresh eyes of youth where for many there is just spectacle, boredom
Wisely. O’Brien let the Psychological potential of each image do the heavy lifting rather than employing the often cloying interventions of more conceptually driven practices; his work acts as a beautiful, life-affirming coda to a lapsed idea of youth, walking a steady path from innocence to worldliness with neither irony nor nostalgia.
Working within the special confines of the medium, which is to say both its formal qualities as a lens-based view of the world and the always latent prejudices and misconceptions of its reception by audiences. Photographs 2003-2011 is a difficult, admirable achievement. Like E.M. Forster’s famous epigraph in Howards End - a masterful novel of the shifting psychological dimensions of the inner and outer life, the seen and unseen - O’Brien seeks to, and succeeds in, stoking the always unfulfilled desire to ‘only connect’.
Conor O’Brien, Photographs 2003-2011 at Australian Centre for Photography
By Dan Rule
To even frame this collection of works by Conor O’Brien as a retrospective seems somewhat misplaced. Granted, there are all the familiar symptoms. On paper, Conor O’Brien: Photographs 2003/2011 proposes a consideration of eight years of profuse image-gathering – a reflection upon a body of work that has made an unmistakable contribution to Australian contemporary photography’s recent incarnation and fabric, a body of work that has both eschewed photographic formalism and forged an alluring syntax of its own. On paper, yes, we are looking back.
But there is something amiss in this line of thought when considering O’Brien’s oeuvre. The staid connotations of the descriptors ‘survey’ or ‘retrospective’ tend to betray the photographer’s continued prolificacy; the implied passivity of the retrospective doesn’t sit comfortably alongside his comparative youth. But there is something else at play here, something very much inherent – as we, and O’Brien, are beginning to learn – to his artistic practice.
Indeed, rather than fulfilling the well-worn trope of the reflexive survey – or in simple (or perhaps cynical) terms, the dusting off of old work – this exhibition offers a far more activated illustration of O’Brien’s current process, of what he has come to describe as his “ongoing edit”.
Unlike many artists, O’Brien is unafraid to engage with his past. In fact, he actively and enthusiastically does so. Where his photographs speak of an almost unconscious and oblique candidness and automation, he archives, sorts and curates his bodies of work with the rigorousness of a historian. New photographs become new access points, new activators, to older works; familiarities are recognised and articulated; repeated motifs or gestures become previously unrecognised linkages, traces or glyphs. He studies the new in order to learn about the old, teasing out the work’s lineage, its bloodline. It becomes cyclical – an interchange of reinterpretations.
O’Brien’s recent images also inspire this kind of engagement in their audience, and perhaps this is the subtle mastery of his work. We learn about his old via his new, more so than the other way around. To suggest that the evocative snippets of atmosphere-laden landscapes, snow-covered mountain peaks and wind-blown human subjects that marked his recent The Last White Cloud series enlivened several of his past works would border on understatement.
The Perth-raised photographer’s impulsive, off-the-cuff means of shooting has always attracted its share of champions – among them Melbourne artist Thomas Jeppe’s Serps Press imprint and Sydney’s Rainoff Books, each of whom published sought after editions on O’Brien – but those same seemingly offhand rejections of formalism have also garnered some detractors.
But with reflection and with time, O’Brien’s work reveals itself for what it really is, and this is the precise power of Conor O’Brien: Photographs 2003/2011. His wonderfully effortless – at times even a little wonky – images are web of moments and instances otherwise lost. They are markers and memory capsules amid the throes of an evolving personal history.
O’Brien himself put it best when he described working on this exhibition. “It is a current show, featuring some old works.” That it is.
Exhibition Review (extract):
Broadsheet Online, 2011
Conor O’Brien, The Last White Cloud at Block Projects
By Dan Rule
Across a suite of seven photographs, he translates a mountainous, alpine landscape into something immediate and emotive. What might be interpreted as atmosphere or spaciousness assumes a kind of loaded presence.
In one work, a cragged rock formation juts out of the snow, towering like a sculpture, a hero piece. It is permanent and powerful. In another, a blizzard engulfs a mountainside, a cluster of boulders and a barbed wire fence barely visible through the cloud of falling ice. It is a moment, an instant, a fleeting vantage. What lies in front of our eyes, O’Brien seems to stipulate, has the potential to disappear at any moment. Another work sees a flash throw a short span of light across a darkened forest path. What lies beyond the blinding flare of soil and pine is unknown. It is a moment, condensed and contained.
Two of strongest works feature a young man and woman, each silhouetted against a lake and mountainous backdrop, their backs turned to the lens. That we avoid their gaze is crucial. They are signifiers of an experience shared, of an intimacy.
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