William J. O’Brien at the MCA


William J. O’Brien’s first big solo museum exhibition at the Renaissance Society in 2011 helped cement his reputation as a skilled ceramicist. Standing out from the 100 ceramic works were O’Brien’s “busts”—highly expressive, human-like heads that carry a wide range of cultural references from 19th century face jugs to rubber Halloween masks. These pieces read as engaging psychological portraits, but they also showcase O’Brien’s accomplishments in the medium of clay.

So, it may be surprising to learn that the 38-year-old, Chicago-based artist is well versed in a variety of media—besides ceramics—including assemblage, painting, drawing, and metal sculpture. Examples of each genre are presented in O’Brien’s first comprehensive museum exhibition, William J. O’Brien, opening January 25 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.

“The work in the studio was nothing like the stuff I saw in the [Renaissance Society] show. He had all these other incredible bodies of work,” says MCA curator Naomi Beckwith who organized the O’Brien exhibition. “What I wanted to do was to bring the breadth of his works out to the public.” 

O’Brien first exhibited at the MCA in 2005 as part of the museum’s 12 x 12 series (now called BMO Harris Chicago Works). He was also included in the MCA’s group exhibition Phantom Limb: Approaches to Painting Today in 2012. “Bill is clearly someone, institutionally, who we’ve been watching for some time,” says Beckwith.

O’Brien’s current exhibition is the latest installment in the MCA’s “ascendant artist” series—which has featured such notables as Rashid Johnson, Amalia Pica, and Paul Sietsema. As the word “ascendant” implies, these exhibitions present artists who are not quite at mid-career, but are on the brink of fame. Says Beckwith, “We’re catching people on their way up.”

O’Brien is the first Chicago-based artist to be showcased in the MCA’s ascendant artist series. “It’s really great to feature someone located here [in Chicago], someone who’s already showing in New York,” says Beckwith. “It’s nice to come home and look at the talent that’s right under our noses.

In addition to being represented by the Shane Campbell Gallery in Chicago, O’Brien is also represented by the Marianne Boesky Gallery in New York and the Almine Rech Gallery in Paris.

The physicality O’Brien brings to his art is a constant that runs through each genre he tackles. “He has such a bodily investment in the work that he produces,” says Beckwith, “You can see him really working across the page in the drawings. You can see him wrapping, molding, reshaping, breaking and sticking things together in the assemblage work.”

Representative of the physicality of O’Brien’s process is the layering of textures in his work. His ceramic busts are heavily textured, often featuring knobs of clay protruding from glazed surfaces, giving a kind of bumpy, nubby appearance. Some of O’Brien’s “paintings” are assemblages constructed of layers of detritus—packing materials, old clothes, sticks—all covered in a unifying pigment. His metal sculptures are created by welding a series of planar elements together, giving the impression of texture through layering. Even O’Brien’s drawings are multilayered. A counter-balance to the “masculine physicality” of O’Brien’s pieces is his interest in color, pattern, and naïve forms—qualities that are often associated with feminist artists, outsider artists, and/or artists of color.

“There is almost a kind of feminist gesture there,” says Beckwith, “where you see his work moving from the decorative, associated with women’s work, to something that feels like abstraction. You see his work veering from quilting and textile to assemblage.” 

This push-and-pull between masculine and feminine, art and craft, high and low is evident throughout all of O’Brien’s works. “He’s thinking about those things that have been dropped out of art history,” says Beckwith, “while using those things that have been valued by art history.”

In September 2011 a fire almost completely destroyed O’Brien’s studio and the studios of three other artists in an Avondale warehouse. Many of his works were lost. Luckily, enough works survived in the galleries and in the hands of collectors that the current MCA show could still be mounted. New pieces have filled the gaps, including a large-scale, site specific installation that Beckwith describes as “totemic objects” exploring the idea of “monuments to feelings.”

When speaking of O’Brien’s likely reception at the MCA, Beckwith stated, “He’s been teaching at the School of the Art Institute for a while. It’s going to be amazing to have his students here [at the MCA] alongside his colleagues. Clearly, he has a collection base and group of supporters here in the city. It’s nice to have what feels like a big family hug around William at this time.”

Accompanying the MCA exhibition will be a monograph, William J. O’Brien, co-written by Beckwith and Trevor Smith of the Peabody Essex Museum, which will include a creative writing piece by local critic Jason Foumberg. The monograph will include a checklist of the 140 objects to be displayed in the MCA exhibition.

For more information about William J. O’Brien (both the exhibition and the monograph), visit