10/28/2014 02:41 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

An Interview With John David O'Brien


AO-1 (2014), 35 7/8 x 35 7/8" (91 x 91 cm.), acrylic paint, ink and medium on silver halide Lambda Durst; prints on Fujicolor Crystal Archive matte paper and mounted on 3mm Dibond panels.

John David O'Brien's art is like jazz (music). There are riffs, reactions, multi-layered conversations and curious juxtapositions that provoke our reactions to various bits of information that just might change our basic sense of time and place. In his Accidental Orientalist series of 2014, O'Brien borrows or appropriates a variety of preexisting imagery and aesthetics in the making of alluring visual objects.

The two dimensional works, which begin with oversized reproductions of slides of Asia, have expanding narratives by way of colorful oblong ovals and various riffs on specific elements or details. In the freestanding sculptures, O'Brien mixes materials in such a way to imply cross-cultural references that span time and location. I've recently had an opportunity to ask O'Brien a few questions in an attempt to demystify his iconography.

DDL: In looking at your two dimensional work, I can't help but think that the images of Asia are not your own - that they are something you've come across in shoe box at a garage sale or some friend or relative's basement. Are they 'found'?

JDO: The underlying images in the 2D work are all from color slides that my father took while living in Japan, both before I was born and then shortly thereafter. He was observing the country as an outsider in the aftermath of the war between the US and Japan. These images are twice removed from me and yet for me they are compelling documents of my birthplace from a non-professional's point of view.

With the Accidental Orientalist series, I was exploring the misunderstanding of orientalism (a misperception of the east on the part of the west) as a way of entering into a past, a foreign land where I was both born and lived for 3 years and a stylistic continuum that is both mine and not mine.


AO-11 (2014), 35 7/8 x 35 7/8" (91 x 91 cm.), acrylic paint, ink and medium on silver halide Lambda Durst; prints on Fujicolor Crystal Archive matte paper and mounted on 3mm Dibond panels.

DDL: When I visited Seoul, S. Korea a few years back I went walking through the grounds of Gyeongbokgung Palace. It was there that I fully understood the connection between the lines of nature and the dynamics of architecture. In looking at your two dimensional work, I first noticed the expanding narratives as I mentioned earlier, but now that you tell me these are images of your earliest environs, and that there is a concern with helping others to better understand the true ways of Japan I am thinking that these images are very much about the harmony in eastern cultures - that unmistakable unity between cultural esthetics and nature. I might also suggest that the ovals, which are extended circles, indicate how nature and humankind's contributions are a complete cycle. Was that your intention?

JDO: It certainly seems to me that I am trying to decipher the sense my birthplace - my idiosyncratic Japan from afar - so in that way I could be contributing to another's understanding of something about its truth. Truth about otherness is usually somewhat mobile and so I stay away from knowing and instead offer a poetic construction, a willfully one-sided version. At least that way, a viewer can begin to question their sense of the truth about others and other's places.

That is related to the shapes I employ; The oval form that I am most interested in is the ellipse since it has the unique characteristic of having 2 focal points from which a straight line drawn from one of the focal points to any point on the curve and then back to the other focal point has the same length for every point on the curve. Ellipses have a wonderfully strange dual true center that does indeed contain important kernels about the meaning of cycles, as you note.


AO-8 (2014), 35 7/8 x 35 7/8" (91 x 91 cm.), acrylic paint, ink and medium on silver halide Lambda Durst; prints on Fujicolor Crystal Archive matte paper and mounted on 3mm Dibond panels.

DDL: I like that, as it allows for both an outward and a personal interpretation of something so pivotal in your life. That's what makes being an artist such a privilege, as it allows one to make those connections in the studio. Do you find those early years in Japan to be an influence on any other aspect of your life?

JDO: I am convinced that those early years in Japan were an influence on my world view and do have an influence on other aspects of my life and sensibility. It just makes sense that these lengthy immersions in other cultures are powerful forces in a life - especially when you are young enough to understand what is going on and not yet steeped enough in a culture or a language to see one's self as this and the other as different. I have been told by friends that they can see the influence in the way I have of ordering things around myself and sometimes in my use of open-ended responses to questions; although for me, it is hard to find any specific factual or corroborative instances to hang my hat on in that regard. It is almost like me looking at snapshot of myself - standing upright in the hands of my Japanese nanny, Hama, dressed in a kimono and gesturing at something off in the distance: I could feel like I remember that but maybe it is an illusion that the photo conjures up? It can't know but it feels like a force among the others that forged my understanding of people things around me.

DDL: It appears to me, that your three dimensional work suggests the unending battle between form vs. function. In a few of the pieces, you hint at the makings of a table and chairs or a bench seat, even though it is clear by their aesthetic and structural qualities that they are for our eyes only. I'm reminded of the De Stijl art movement when Dutch artists and architects worked together to produce some of the 20th century's greatest works of the Modern era. In looking at your sculptures, I get the feeling that you are mixing many different eras from across the globe, with the over-riding concept that accidental or unlikely pairings make the best statement for our current times. Would you agree?

JDO: I agree with you completely. The underlying forms that I am adapting in the 3D work are taken from furniture and architecture that can be seen in slides of the homes in Japan or historical sites from the areas I lived in. I have adapted and modified these elements, fusing and incorporating them together with abstract shapes in order to form a discontinuous stylistic continuum where any sense of formal unity is purposefully disrupted. They act like alien intrusions entering into an existing context, working as an uncomfortable interference and yet imaginative extension.


AO scultura-1 (zazen) (2014), 22 ¾ x 20 ½ x 17"(58 x 52 x 43 cm.), wood, aluminum, paint.

DDL: I see that now. What I can't ignore is the fact that you are still making important connections. Maybe not exactly connections but something like opposites attract - you know, wabi-sabi vs. perfection - or perhaps, it's about how differences, when fully understood and appreciated, can give strength and importance to both. In your 3D work, you see specific elements or the ideals that are contrasted yet I still sense that most basic theoretical difference about the lines of nature, how we basically make them secondary, if note worthy at all, and how they are a primary concern very often in the east. Was that intentional?

JDO: I really concur with you and I am not trying to obfuscate, I just find it hard to claim entirely conscious and intentional control over these types of combinations. I believe as artists we are constantly elaborating contrasts, opposites and contradictions and if we can get out of the way of their paradoxical proximity in art, then really interesting things can happen. If I dwell on them too much with logic and language, I actually see the results dissipate, the echoes diminish. On a more optimistic note, I'd love to feel like the moving of the secondary to the primary and the perceptual shuffling that my objects bring to your mind would be something that could continue and even occur in other viewers. I am intent on creating puzzling things that have more than one solution and that set off a viewer's imagination.


AO scultura-2 (tera) (2014), 23 ½ x 22 ½ x 15" (60 x 57 x 38 cm.), wood, steel, aluminum, paint, dye.

DDL: I'm sure you have heard this as often as I have that it's all in the editing. It's also not a bad idea to let things fly, as you never know what you will discover. I think you've managed to leave almost any viewer who will take the time to openly look and think just the right amount of stimulating visual points of entry and departure to prompt an expanded approach in their own thinking and hopefully, when that next inane text, email or phone call comes in they will ignore it for a few precious moments and experience the breadth and depth of the moment.


AO scultura-4 (shikīchi) (2014), 15 x 27 ¾ x 21" (38 x 67 x 53 cm.), wood, steel, paint.