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Like all obsessive artists, photocollage practitioner John O'Reilly spends hours and days on end in his studio, fine-tuning his intricate, idiosyncratic cut-and-paste compositions. On those rare occasions when O'Reilly feels limited within the confines of his own studio, he visits those of fellow artists such as Picasso, Pissaro and Ingres, often making cameo appearances in their masterpieces. In daring feats of illusionary transformation, O'Reilly time-travels through centuries of art history and rummages around the studios and canvases of his idols, searching for clues to his own identity.

Using razor blades, paper clips and an old Polaroid camera, O'Reilly has spent the past several decades constructing visual passion plays and elaborate fantasy scenarios in which he mingles with such esteemed company as Goya and Caravaggio. As a bemused gate-crasher through the annals of art history, O'Reilly has produced an aesthetically dazzling, thematically rich body of work that addresses issues of sexuality, creativity and self-definition.

For many years O'Reilly conducted his artistic exploration in private. Such is his career-shunning modesty that for several decades the Massachusetts-based artist-now nearing seventy-only showed his work to close friends. Not until his celebrated inclusion in the 1995 Whitney Biennial did O'Reilly achieve belated "overnight success" as a pioneer of elegant, witty, often erotic gay imagery.

Although his admirable refusal to play the art-world game suggests a becoming modesty, O'Reilly has never been shy to reveal himself within his own work, often appearing nude in the many self-portraits he has produced over the years. In images such as "A Vanitas" and "Archaic Self-Portrait," O'Reilly nearly goes full monty for the sake of his art. As he explains, "The self-portraits try to establish both a self-identity and a social identity. I attempt to counter the sense of imprisonment, the feelings of marginalization, by insisting that my private world exists as an integral part of the larger social context."

By piecing together Polaroids of himself with pictures from family photo albums, beefcake shots from porn mags, and reproductions of paintings by the likes of Vermeer, Corot and Degas, O'Reilly reflects upon his own experiences as a gay man drawn to disparate cultural traditions. "I love the clash of pornography with the righteousness of a beautiful masterpiece," he says, adding that he relies on magazines for his hunky subjects because "I'm too embarrassed to hire models to pose for the photographs."

In works such as "Wounded Child," "As a Dutch Romancer" and "Preparing to Shoot Phillip IV," O'Reilly reveals himself in bits and pieces-literally-and also challenges viewers to locate their own desires and fears within his fanciful tableaux. In these and many other images, O'Reilly looks directly at us, sometimes confrontationally, other times eager to share his surprise and delight at finding himself within the hallowed realm of art history.

O'Reilly also has appropriated photos of queer icons such as Walt Whitman, Benjamin Britten and Jean Genet, transforming them into droll self-portraits by pasting his own bespectacled mug onto their bodies, or by paper-clipping their famous faces to his refreshingly pale, scrawny torso. "There's an element of gay culture that only wants to look at and glorify beautiful men," O'Reilly says, "but I'm much more interested in presenting a realistic image of the male body."

Whether role-playing as artist or model, saint or soldier, Rembrandt's Christ or tattooed hustler, O'Reilly is far more appealing and provocative than a dozen buffed and polished pretty boys. Who else could mix-and-match imagination and desire so splendidly while hobnobbing with Velázquez and Rimbaud?
"In Pissaro's Studio"
1985, Polaroid and Half-tone Montage
3 3/4" x 4 7/8"

"In Ingre's Studio"
1986, Polaroid Photomontage
3 11/16" x 7 1/8""

"In Eakins' Studio"
1985/96, Polaroid Photomontage
2 5/8" x 3 1/4"

"My Goya"
1989/96, Polaroid Photomontage
3 7/8" x 4 11/16"

"Photographing the Corpse"
1984, Photo and Half-tone Montage
5 3/8" x 3 1/2"

"A Vanitas"
1985, Polaroid and Half-tone Montage
3 3/4" x 5 3/8"

"Archaic Self-Portrait"
1981, Photo and Half-tone Montage
9 13/16" x 6 1/8"

"Self-Portrait with Mark Morrisroe"
1996, Polaroid Photomontage
8 5/8" x 6 1/4"
"Self-Portrait at Nine"
1997, Unique Polaroid photo
2 7/8" x 3 3/4"

"Wounded Child"
1991, Polaroid Photomontage
9 5/16" x 5 5/16"

"As A Dutch Romancer"
1990, Polaroid Photographic Collage
3 3/4" x 9 3/8"

"Preparing to Shoot Phillip IV"
1986, Polaroid Photographic Collage
3 3/4" x 4 9/16"
John O'Reilly images courtesy
Hosfelt Gallery, San Francisco;
Julie Saul Gallery, New York;
Howard Yezerski Gallery, Boston.
We welcome your questions and comments regarding this exhibition in our
Discussion Group