Vespers: An Interview with Justin Liam O’Brien

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Richard Heller Gallery, Santa Monica // November 05, 2022 – December 17, 2022

When I last spoke with Justin Liam O’Brien back in 2020, it’s interesting that loneliness and being lost in the crowd was a subject we circled the wagons with, so to speak. Little did we know the transformation that would still persist today, the evolution of our personal histories and collective conscious. Now in the fall of 2022, on the verge of his solo show Vespers at Richard Heller Gallery, O’Brien is thinking about spirituality in the creative process, and still pondering loneliness in a world full of fables and rituals. 

Evan Pricco: When I first saw the title of the show was Vespers, I of course immediately began thinking of the religious implications and then really wanted to know how you came to this title?Justin Liam O’Brien: Vespers are an evening prayer service in the Catholic church. I really love the idea of an evening mass. I think of the smell of a censer and candlelight. People are gathered around quietly. Being alone in a room of paintings, as I was for many nights this past summer, can feel something like the experience of being in a sacred space. I chose Vespers as the title because many of the works started to feel like nocturnes to me. Also because much of the work was inspired by paintings of stories or characters from the bible. 

Do you find the process of painting like a religious experience for you? Or we can replace religious with spiritual. 

I think painting can be incredibly spiritual. It provides a finite space to express infinite ideas. That seems very similar to meditation or prayer to me. But it also depends on the context, the circumstances. Sometimes painting can be incredibly difficult or manic. But then again so can prayer or meditation.

Vigil 60x48inches OilOnLinen 2022

You have really sharpened your edges, so to speak, in your recent works. The roundness is now more angular. What have you been exploring, or what do you relate, to your shift? 

I spent a lot of time in the pandemic learning about renaissance and baroque art history. I’ve always loved history, but it became a real rabbit hole for me in 2020-21. I still have so much to learn! As travel began to open back up I was eager to see some of the places I had learned about – London, Florence, and Madrid in particular. Seeing all the art in these places was a real shock to the system. I’m from New York and have gone to museums here since I was young, but getting out of the country and seeing art that I’ve only read about or seen online was a pivotal moment for me. It really dramatically affected my practice.

You have a background in digital and 3D art, and I wanted to ask you if that sort of influence is something you consciously think about when you paint? 

Sometimes, but not always. Occasionally l use 3D modeling software to help plan a painting or make reference imagery to work from, but when I paint I’m focusing on execution and improvisation with the materials. That said, I was making 3D models and renders on my computer from the time I was in middle school. I think that the way I approach light, shadow, color, form, is indelibly influenced by looking at digital images.

Hands of Providence 84x60inches OilOnLinen 2022

There was a striking thing you said to me from our interview in 2019, this idea that your work at the time was “about feeling alone in a crowd of people.” This work, in particular is a shift, but we have gone through such a traumatic time in the world, that I wonder what perhaps changed your perceptions of loneliness and art-making since 2019? 

I’ve thought a lot about that sentiment as well. When we last spoke I was dealing with a more personal experience of loneliness. I was scared of being left behind, left out, broken up with, etc. These are certainly still fears, but I understand them in a way I didn’t then. Perhaps the paintings helped? Then the pandemic redefined all of that for me. Studio life has wonderful freedoms but it can be rather solitary and alienating at times. I can no longer say it’s just about feeling alone in a room full of people, even if that’s still salient in the work. It’s more emotionally or narratively abstract, more broad. I’m most proud of how these works feel like they’re views of the same world. I think of most of them as kind of uneasy or liminal. They’re weird. On the line between hope and doubt, desire and fear. But they have a lot of room for wonder and I find that very compelling.

I always ask this to people when they come out to LA for their solo shows, but what is first on your list of things to do, things to eat, things to see? 

This will be my first time ever in LA so I’m kind of nervous, but also really excited! I hope the tacos live up to the hype. I’m excited to go to the Getty, but also just to drive around. We rented a Mustang convertible sort of impulsively. I think that should be fun… 

Justin Liam O’Brien’s Vespers will be on view at Richard Heller Gallery in Santa Monica from November 5—December 17, 2022

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