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Artist John O’Reilly, Master of Montage

By Bernard M. Whitmore

culture-lead-john-oreillyIn preparing for my meeting with John O’Reilly, I first turned to Google for some background.  The number of results it returned was incredible, but I guess that’s what happens when you’ve been included in the art world’s foremost exhibitions and have received   accolades from its foremost authorities.   If you’ve not yet heard of or viewed O’Reilly’s talent, perhaps Open Salon explains it most succinctly: O’Reilly’s work explores the relationship between eroticism and art, nature and the self and the bricolage of desire.

But those are just words.  Within moments of being welcomed into the home he shares with sculptor James Tellin, I realized I was in the presence of a truly rare breed:  original, unabashedly kind thinkers at ease with their intellect.  John led me to his studio; though it’s right alongside a busy Worcester street, this place felt like the stacks in an ancient library where someone had set up a production studio and personal art gallery.

BMW:  How do you describe your genre?  Collage?

JOR: This is collage taken a step further, what I call montage.  The reason being that when you think of collage, it is more abstract; the person takes a group of images and relates them as an idea ~ or leaves them abstract.

My things start by aiming for a thought or feeling I have and then I fuse it like a painting. It’s a montage made of all these disparate things. But, like in a movie, I’m trying to bleed from one scene to another.

BMW:  How did you discover your artistic talent?culture-lead-john-oreilly-still-life-with-italian-mask-howard-yezerski-gallery

JOR: Talent? [Chuckle.]  Montage started when I was living in Spain in 1960.  Jim and I had gone to Spain for about a year and a half ~ until we ran out of money.  When we had to come home I found I had made a lot of art that was headed for the garbage.  But when I started tearing them up I found I could use the pieces to make collages.

That’s how it started.  When I returned I started cutting out figures from Muybridge photographs and I’d add other things.  Over the years I needed images I couldn’t find, so I started taking pictures with my camera ~ starting with myself.  I’d superimpose myself onto a Rembrandt.

Then I got a Polaroid camera [gesturing]; that table used to be like another world and I’d build little dioramas.  Then I’d run the camera down the table taking a series of ‘pieces’ and then put the pieces back together, perhaps inserting other photos.

culture-lead-john-reilly-dogtown-hartley-series-9-30-08-credit-credit-howard-yezerski-galleryWhen Polaroid went out of business I started using a regular camera and would take color film to CVS for developing.  The colors were never true; they’d come out [with a] bluish or reddish tint. Disappointing if you want a photo of Mom.  But I wanted the color… Like a red ocean!

I did another series and one day I went into CVS and the woman that was developing came out and said, ‘I’ve been looking at your pictures and they’re very strange, we have nothing like this come in here!’  I explained what I was trying to do and she started to help me and spent hours getting it down to a good black and white print.  She came to my opening and posed with the work!

BMW:  Speaking of openings, the Whitney Biennial is the contemporary art world’s most important exhibition.  Please tell me about how you were invited to show your montages.

JOR: The Whitney curator went to San Francisco and was shown a book I was collaborating on and said, ‘He’s in the Whitney!’  I didn’t believe it until they came to Boston to interview me.  I was very lucky, as the oldest person in the show there was a profile on me in the NY Times magazine section.

The nicest thing that happened to me was the next time I went up the street for my Sunday paper.  The woman said, ‘You’re John O’Reilly, aren’t you?  I’ve never had a famous person in my store before!  Please keep coming!’   She actually read it and I had a fan!  That was more fun than the show.

BMW:  Do you think creativity is universal?culture-lead-john-oreilly-to-hart-crane-7-1987-credit-howard-yezerski-gallery

JOR: I think everyone is creative.  Photography has become universal.  I did a series of Polaroid photos of myself nude. There was a reason for it:  I grew up hating my skinniness ~ I felt like an outcast.  Taking the photos forced me to look at myself.

People are doing that with Facebook.  It’s trash, most of it, but they’re being creative and they have a need and that need is to have a self.  That’s what creativity, in a sense, does.  Creativity gives you a self.

Perhaps it’s fitting that a self-described warrior in battle against technology who doesn’t own a computer and dislikes the telephone would be the person who finally explains to me the secret of social media.

You may view John O’Reilly montages in person at these galleries:  Tibor de Nagy Gallery (New York) and Howard Yezerski Gallery (Boston) and view some of his work online at and

Works featured are as follows:
(top right) Still Life with Italian Mask Howard Yezerski Gallery
(second left) Dogtown Hartley Series, (9-30-08), credit Howard Yezerski Gallery
(bottom right) To Hart Crane #7, (1987) credit Howard Yezerski Gallery

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