Second Place for Fine Art
Interview by Jennifer Nelson, WTP Feature Writer
A native of Ireland, Bart O’Reilly is an artist and instructor currently based in Baltimore. His interdisciplinary work includes painting, drawing, poetry, and video. His work addresses questions related to places and their objects. He earned an MFA from Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) and a BFA from the National College of Art and Design in Dublin, Ireland. He has exhibited in Baltimore, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC, as well as in Ireland and Northern Ireland. He teaches at MICA and Harford Community College. He has received grants from The Baltimore Social Innovation Journal and an Individual Artists Award from The Baltimore Office of Promotions and the Arts.
Nelson: In your works, especially those to be featured in the special winners edition, often there is the application of sparse and reductive painterly technique—and to exquisite fluid, even poetic, effect. Can you comment on this technique?
O’Reilly: When I am painting, the seduction of the material takes precedence. The colour of the pigment, the paint’s fluidity when mixed with water and other mediums, its capacity to stain raw canvas, all combine to offer what seems like limitless potential. I start with a tube of acrylic paint, a jar of water, and a medium. This method can seem sparse and certainly the action of the water is reductive. I want to see how much variation is possible within these limitations. It turns out to be endless.
Nelson: These works are particularly remarkable as they are acrylics—a less forgiving medium than oils. Can you comment here about your choice as to medium?
O’Reilly: This is true. I have used oils in the past and still use them; however, the majority of my recent paintings have been acrylic. Part of the reason for my choice of media is that acrylic can come into direct contact with the raw canvas without the need for a size or ground. This allows for staining in a way that is not possible with oil. Also I enjoy water as a medium for my paint, it is an integral part of life; it is familiar, it erodes and reduces pigment without the use of toxic solvents. I have even gone so far as to freeze watered down acrylic paint during winter, leaving the traces of ice crystals on the raw canvas.
Nelson: In other works such as “Propped up in Haste,” the focus seems to shift more toward form. And in your This Land’s not made for Refugees series, there is a move toward the illustrative, even figurative. What was the impetus for these various shifts in approach?
O’Reilly: I suppose this comes from my interest in drawing. “Propped up in Haste” was painted after making a series of drawings from blocks of wood. The drawings became less about the wood and more about their shape as a kind of a monolith. This was not a conscience decision. It came about as a result of having a studio full of found objects and wanting to draw them.
This Land’s not made for Refugees is a very recent series. Around the time of the November 2016 election I began making more figurative work. Like many of us, I was very concerned with the political turn this country was taking. I had been in Ireland that summer also. These works occupy a curious space somewhere between my childhood in Ireland and my present in the United States. The works sought a more immediate and direct response and I think once again has a lot to do with drawing.
Nelson: The series Dried up Puddles Memories is interesting, as there seems to be a movement toward collage, though these works are still quite painterly. What inspired this series, and how do you see it as a continuum or a departure in your work?
O’Reilly: I have been working on un-stretched canvas for a few years. At first the works were very small. Whilst considering ways to present these works, a friend who is a fabric artist suggested that I sew them onto linen fabric. After various other conversations and suggestions I began to explore the sewing and cutting of the cotton canvas, and the linen fabric is a working method rather than just a means of presentation. This really opened the door to a new way of working. I am still in the early stages of figuring it all out. Since I am still attached to the painterly quality of the work I hope to see it as a continuum rather than a complete departure. It is allowing me to deal with the physical space of the wall in a way has not been possible with conventional stretched canvas.
Nelson: You evidently often combine a painting with a poem in such works as “My Lost Summer Bird.” How did this pairing of the visual arts with the literary come about?
O’Reilly: I have always thought that the titles of my works were very important and quite often lyrical. It was during my time at graduate school at MICA that I rediscovered writing as an interest. It started with studio notes, observations about my surroundings and the things I was working with at the time. I see the poems as extended titles in a way. I have found reading the poems in front of paintings at exhibition openings to be a very satisfying way of offering people a way into the work itself.
Nelson: You also have paired your writing with video, and to some quite visually sophisticated effects, as in The Imagined Shed Trilogy. How did you come to work in video as an art form?
O’Reilly: During my time at NCAD (Dublin) in the ’90s I started to project found TV footage onto the surface of my canvases and painted the imagery while it was in motion. This began my interest in video. It evolved quite naturally into making my own videos at graduate school. The Imaginary Shed Trilogy is the culmination of about five years of experimentation with the medium. Video has allowed me to work with time, light, and even space in very direct way that has affected the way I paint.
Nelson: How did your mentor and friend Renee Van Der Stelt influence your artwork? Have any other artists or writers inspired you?
O’Reilly: Renee is a professor at MICA and though she was not my assigned mentor in the program we became friends. She has been very encouraging of my practice in general and my writing in particular. Mark Joyce in Dublin, Pauline Macey, Robert Armstrong, and Oliver Whelan, also in Dublin, have had a strong impact on influencing my direction at various points. John Penny, my mentor at MICA, radically changed the way I think about art production, practice, and critical theory. Of course there are others, too many to mention.
Nelson: How does teaching art influence your artwork, and is there one piece of advice you most often pass on to your students?
O’Reilly: Teaching forces me to continue learning and to stay current on contemporary practice. I am certain that teaching painting after a long period of making video had something to do with me returning to it. The advice I give to students who seem serious is to persist. Being an artist is extremely difficult. Art school tends to challenge their preconceived notions about art and navigating that experience alone is not easy. I try to get them used to applying for student opportunities and prepare them for a lot of rejection.
Nelson: How do you see your work evolving in the future?
O’Reilly: I see the collaged work as something I will continue. I am also very curious about oil painting again. I want to explore mixing the stained acrylic on canvas process with layers of wax and oil paint floating on top. It never goes the way I think it will in the studio so it’s hard to say for sure. That’s what keeps me coming back to it.
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