A Little “Physical Education” with Justin Liam O”Brien

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In the center of Justin Liam O’Brien‘s Physical Education, you have to look up. There is a circular painting hung from the ceiling, like a fresco from the Renaissance, and in the way O’Brien has been painting in recent years, it feels more than just an ode but a conversation. His painting hero may be George Tooker, but even Tooker wasn’t shy of his ideas of being a Magical Realist and his relationship to the body as almost supernatural. And it seems like O’Brien is letting his characters run free in the universe of the almost real but surely magical imagination. 

In his wonderful essay on Physical Education, writer Harry Tafoya notes, “O’Brien has made estrangement a central theme throughout his work but has often approached it from the perspective of a young man being told to lighten up and enjoy the freedom that being gay has afforded to him. In Physical Education the stakes are more personal and much higher, as his subjects skirt across emotional trip wires at risk of losing their intimate connections altogether.” Maybe that is why the painting rises above the gallery floor. The stakes are higher but the freedom is even greater. —Evan Pricco

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