What a Feeling: Justin Liam O’Brien at Monya Rowe Gallery


On Friday, December 16, 2022, the author of this article, Efrem Zelony-Mindell, was arrested and charged by the FBI for the attempted enticement of one minor boy in Manhattan, New York, and possession and distribution of child pornography. I mean, Jesus Christ. The case is so viscerally revolting that we can barely read it ourselves, given we thought we knew this person. So, we here at Filthy Dreams were faced with a decision: What are we supposed to do?! Pretend this never happened?! Delete all the articles? That felt cowardly and not exposing how he was able to embed himself into the arts community. So we’re adding this warning to the articles because it also didn’t feel right to ignore it completely:

Justin Liam O’Brien, Stay In My Arms, If You Dare, 2018, oil on canvas (Courtesy of Monya Rowe Gallery; ©Justin Liam O’Brien)

Built into the layers of figures, there are folds that forage something deeper than the inspiration of illustration or the relics of cubism. The flesh of Justin Liam O’Brien’s paintings is bestowed with deep hues of mindful depression that is associated with intimacy and rejection. The forms are inoculated with the instruction of abstraction and the contrast of aching colors. The figures and people in his paintings could be anyone–they are everyone. Sometimes with gender, but many without such specificity. There are elbows and ears that feed into torsos and toes. The mind of O’Brien’s queerness rumbles the round edges and form fitted lines of these works. Adjacent limbs linger in the grips of one another and the faces moan and scream, in ecstasy and terror. They are a labyrinth of exposition. Once between the walls of Monya Rowe Gallery, there is no escape from the desire to contort and contract the possibilities of these paintings. O’Brien does not hang alone; the show Rose-tinted is shared by the works of Celeste Rapone whose figurative works engage a conversation with O’Brien in a charming and thoughtful manner.

Installation view of Rose-tinted at Monya Rowe Gallery (Courtesy of the artists and Monya Rowe Gallery)

It‘s not my intention to forget the shared space, but O’Brien’s work strikes most—to me. Not out of gayness, or sympathy, friendship, or newness. O’Brien’s works are impressive because they display something that echoes deeper than the mere simplicity of expectations. Choices can be quick, but execution is ennobled by the endeavor of technique and care. Color is curious because it furnishes the rewards of looking. In the canvases of O’Brien, such attention is held. “I don’t think that I could make this work if I hadn’t had my heart broken,” O’Brien tells me. The span of emotion he sympathizes is one of personal experience, but universal in understanding. To be loved, to be loved, OH WHAT A FEELING! Nothing is ever so simple. The insecurity associated with affection is steep—the ground is rough. Ebbs and flows flounder. The psyche is full of second-guessing. The body becomes bloated by wants and lusts, and fruitful fallacy. The imagery of O’Brien is glazed and the attention is rich. There are tastes and wants of lust to lap up in every last brush stroke and stitch in the works.

Justin Liam O’Brien, I Feel As If I Were Protecting You, 2018, oil on canvas (Courtesy of Monya Rowe Gallery; ©Justin Liam O’Brien)

O’Brien emphasizes to me the importance of what is understandable and translatable when making his paintings. The works of these lovers are synonymous with the world we live in. Taps and touches on our phone course the needs and wants of passion; these modern structures act as a starting point for him. Many of us find ourselves bathing in the light of our devices. There is a catharsis of yearning and searching through left swipes and rights. What will we find? How will we discover ourselves through the tangibility of others? Navigating our comforts and discomforts will allow us to learn how to exist in changing environments. “I’m always thinking about what can and can’t be said all at once when I’m making my work and out living my life,” says O’Brien. There’s a consuming sense of joining and establishing community amongst peers. The rewards of others can be painful; the confusion of intimacy will inspire doubts and anger. What hangs low in the reality of all those things is the want for understanding and the inspiring realization of interpretation to further ourselves as individuals.

Justin Liam O’Brien, Count To No End, 2018, oil on panel (Courtesy of Monya Rowe Gallery; ©Justin Liam O’Brien)

The souvenirs of history cling to the way O’Brien speaks and thinks about not only his works, but also the life he lives. He allows a collision between the past and a predisposition to contemporary writing, music, and humor. O’Brien ruminates on people, like David Wojnarowicz, Whitney Houston, and Bill Hicks, who came before him. These elements lay bare in the works. The joy of things as they come together form similes and smiles echoing with the reaches of sound through the use of what he brings to painting. There are no limits; there is instigation and imagination. O’Brien is making new space. These works speak with sincerity and sorrow. The things worth valuing most will fill us up.

Justin Liam O’Brien, I’m Not Brave, 2018, oil on canvas (Courtesy of Monya Rowe Gallery; ©Justin Liam O’Brien)

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