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His ART Year

Artist John O’Brian overcomes chronic illness to make art again


John O’Brian is soft-spoken and witty, and his eyes dance with pleasure at the thought of his new body of work, Landscapes and Cassette Tapes, currently on view at Bold Bean Coffee Roasters’ Riverside location.

The freelance graphic designer has a long history in the Jacksonville art scene (among other projects, he worked at Burro Bags as a designer and fabricator, and is co-owner of the cruelty-free custom accessories line Fox & Owl), but because of metabolic arthritis—a chronic autoimmune disease exacerbated by diet, he’s been forced to keep a lower profile than he’d like for the past decade or so. But that is changing.

Since O’Brian cut out all sugar and went vegan, he’s been able to better manage the unpredictable, chronic tendonitis and arthritis that cast a shadow over his person and spirit. “Pain is the ultimate eye-opener,” he said in relation to the drastic overhaul he gave his life in 2016. And judging from the works on display, having a measure of freedom from it has released his creative potential.

All of the work for Landscapes and Tapes was completed in about two months. He explained that he said to himself, “This is the year you do art.” He set about making a plan that would allow a measure of freedom, but would also set up specific problems. He also took on a personal challenge: the idea of making art from a positive place. “It’s easy to draw inspiration from pain, but it kind of sucks after a while.”

When he was ready to get started, “I went around in my ’87 Bronco, picking up wood scraps and contractor discards—a friend brought these old Plexiglas numbers from an abandoned gas station … ” He smiled as he gestured to the works mounted on the walls of the café, and it’s clear he means that the small, unanticipated gift of seemingly useless numerals quickly evolved into something tangible and playful.

That Plexi signage (with a little help from other found materials) has become the central body of work, and—as O’Brian mentions, has begun moving away from the rectangular substrate/support that he initially devised. Most of the pieces displayed here (with the exception of the tape deck works) are supported with a rectangular backing piece. The backing has been loosely painted to look like mountains, but the artist says he’s already moving away from that grid-like referent into pieces that are more wholly sculpture. And it’s a good choice, as the small bas-relief-ish assemblages do not need the explicit rectangular framing for cohesion.

The impish title Golden Hour, for a piece backed with quatrefoil-pattern die-cut sheet metal, and an obscured/partially worn-away zero, conjures summer days spent running in and out of a favorite relative’s home, as the screen door satisfyingly slams shut again and again. Acid Mountain Comedown veers away from childhood tropes (or those imposed by a writer), but is no less playful for that. Though the artist takes formal cues from Brutalist architecture—those kinds of minimal gestures are clear in his work—the sly humor O’Brian himself exudes is present here, too. The central figure, a symmetrical loaf-like form with “wing notations,” evokes a headless/faceless creature that might be found in a medieval bestiary alongside overgrown humans sporting an eyeball or two, and dogs with beaks.

Japanese Cat Music continues the absurdist leitmotif. One of his “tapes” is a wooden cassette tape, slightly larger than life-size with all of its “guts” hanging out. It’s a reminder of those infuriating days of yore when the boombox would inhale the magnetic tape, spitting out something mangled beyond use. It also brings to mind a suite of Christian Marclay cyanotypes (from the series Cassette Tape Duplication) in which the artist used ruined tapes for their recognizable and decorative qualities (and their connection to his early ’80s installations/performances). But Cat Music in its directness and wit, out-maneuvers the cyanotypes … it’s simply funnier and less ideologically leaden.

O’Brian is justifiably proud of this show, and some of the ways he managed equipment shortcomings—he turned the bed of the Bronco into a mobile woodshop—he doesn’t have one of his own yet. However, he also takes pains to acknowledge the friends who helped encourage him (artist Crystal Floyd and the Bless Your Heart Crew); and, in the case of his fiancée, Lynn Alaia, to cite her incredible work ethic and commitment to him as a major factor in this new venture. “If Lynn wasn’t the brilliant hustler that she is, I would not have this opportunity … I can’t squander it.”

Later this year, John O’Brian has a solo show/pop-up event at Brew Five Points in November. He also has commission pieces he’s working on. “Some people treat their creativity like beer money; I set up micro-goals so I can treat it like a job.”

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