Ceramic Namelessness

Artist William J. O’Brien is talking to about a dozen University of Chicago visual arts students in a pair of black Levis and a plaid, pastel-colored shirt. The shirt’s got a big horizontal tear on the back, several inches long, and standing with arms crossed O’Brien looks either pensive or uncomfortable. He’s a hard guy to read, O’Brien is.

Curator Hamza Walker and the Renaissance Society host his first solo exhibition, appropriately titled “William J. O’Brien.” It’s a nice anti-title for an exhibition that does its best to avoid sweeping categorization and a singular meaning (i.e., there’s a hell of a lot of stuff going on here, and anyone trying to come up with a title that neatly touches upon all that stuff will probably fail).

Like “Age of Aquarius,” the gallery’s previous show, “O’Brien” is a fun exhibition, wild, eclectic, and colorful. About a hundred ceramic pieces sit tightly arranged on a wooden, T-shaped table, and while a few terraced pyramids on the tabletop elevate some ceramics above the others, for the most part it’s pieces next to pieces next to pieces. There are plaster white faces and rusty browns vases, red masks and sea blue jars; about a hundred pieces and none of them with names.

Most of these ceramic pieces are faces, many of them smiling, a few expressionless or unhappy. One is the blue ceramic face of a woman with sunken eyes and a wide grin. There are white spots around her eyes and over parts of her hair, which is–like her nose and her smile–beady. Some of the ceramic faces take the form of elongated masks, primitive but not unfriendly. Four are red tribal masks, each about a foot-and-a-half tall, smiling with star-shaped designs between their eyes and on their foreheads.

Sitting beside many of the faces are abstract, geometric pieces. One, a black ceramic, looks like a futuristic Swiss-cheese sailing ship. The piece’s cheese-holed sides are, like every other ceramic in the gallery, neither perfectly straight nor perfectly smooth.   O’Brien doesn’t seem to be very interested in technical precision–many of his pieces look like the products of a community center ceramics class–but that’s not to say that his work is “bad.” Technical precision does not equate to artistic quality.

Because there are so many pieces, all nameless and placed inches away from each other, O’Brien’s work refuses to be evaluated on a piece by piece basis.   The forms his works take vary from piece to piece, but all retain an inexplicable quality that lends them a sameness in the midst of their structural or formal differences. In fact, the exhibition’s most notable piece–a  bricolage bust of carpet and fabric–seems to be the only piece in the gallery that doesn’t incorporate ceramics. Pieces of carpet form the upper body of the bust, which upholds a fabricated head contained under a net of pink twine. The whole bust somehow rests on top of a glass case that houses another ceramic head, this one milky white and brown.

Like every other piece in the gallery, the carpet bust is untitled. It’s a strange assemblage, a piece that stands out as a sculpture rather than as a ceramic, and one of the few pieces that suggests a title: Self-Portrait. The fabric of the head, it turns out, is waste from O’Brien’s studio, the recycled remains of other failed or completed projects. The medium, then, seems to be the fabric of O’Brien’s mind, the ideas (used or discarded) of an artist with a wildly active imagination. His head looks like it’s about to explode, and, luckily, it does, its ideas flowing out of O’Brien’s mind and onto the gallery table.