William J. O’Brien, “Transitional Objects” at Shane Campbell Gallery, Chicago

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About the "Transitional Objects" Exhibition

The dead surround the living. The living are the core of the dead. In this core are the dimensions of time and space. What surrounds the core is timelessness1.

John Berger

In flight, 35,000 feet above the earth, I read and reread these words. Although I couldn't see them through the floor of my aisle seat, I knew that there were miles of clouds beneath me. The majority of this brief trip to upstate New York was spent observing time and space through studying clouds, gazing into sunsets over the lake and examining old gravestones in small town cemeteries. On returning to Chicago, I visit William J. O’Brien’s exhibition at Shane Campbell Gallery, titled ‘transitional objects’. On first glance I see a narrative quilt, a figurative sculpture and a still life object. All three appear to be fetish objects. In subtle ways they recall the graveyards, sunsets and clouds. All three objects render time into texture and make its existence tangible. In the work, I also see art historical and folk art echoes, as well as crafting strategies on a grand scale. I imagine hands working, wrapping thoughts and desires up in its knots and loops.

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William J. O’Brien, Untitled (for Dana), 2019, safety pins, yarn, twine, recycled plastic, ink, acrylic, wash-cloths, canvas, 132 x 96 inches.

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William J. O’Brien, detail of Untitled (for Dana).

The overall shape of the quilt-like piece is an unruly rectangle. It hangs taut at top and loose at bottom. It is made of many pieces of cotton duct and rags - two essentials from any painter's studio. It is organized but not a grid. The pieces are stitched together with twine, red yarn, white rope and safety pins. These sewing notions both function and play. They are the physical materials, the technique and the being of the artwork.

Sometimes representational things appear from the arrangement of shapes, placement of safety pins and embroidered yarn. In my sketchbook I jot down a list of words: bursts, mazes, half sandwiches, picnic blanket, eyes, cat paw, fish, bow tie, tombstones, a cross, mouths... One drippy, dyed patch transforms the safety pins into a school of fish and another area with thick red stitching becomes a Matisse like nude from the back. While inspecting the negative space shapes where the gallery wall peeks through, a patch with the word ‘hands’ written in marker shows itself. I admire how the wash-cloths awkwardly ripple when stitched and how some droop over unapologetically. The color palette is that of sunsets. I later learn on Instagram, that this work is titled, Untitled (for Dana). It is a work about human presence and communication. Through hundreds of safety pin pricks, the artist states “I am here”, like a palm print in a prehistoric cave. And perhaps in their cumulative actions, it is an attempt to reach beyond the time and space of our “living core” toward “timelessness2 ". The object is an unexpectedly beautiful thing. It leaves me wondering if all artworks, underneath the pomp and circumstance, are essentially forget me nots and exchanges with the dead?

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‘Matisse like nude from back’, William J. O’Brien, detail of Untitled (for Dana).

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William J. O’Brien, detail of Untitled (for Dana).

My thoughts lean more toward art history when approaching the next two objects. Even though they are made of undyed cotton twine and felt, they recapitulate statuary of the late Baroque and Rococo periods in a strange new way. The figurative piece on the central wall reminds me of the bizarre and overly complicated marble figures found in and around Karlskirche in Vienna.

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Left: William J. O’Brien, Untitled (Torch Bouquet), 2019, cotton twine, felt, powder coated steel, 119.5 x 47.25 x 16.5 inches.
Right: William J. O’Brien, Untitled (Harpsicord), 2019, cotton twine, felt, powder coated steel, 33.5 x 30.5 x 8.75 inches.

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Left: William J. O’Brien, Untitled (Torch Bouquet).
Right: Nicolas-Sebastien, Prometheus Bound, 1745, marble, 44 x 32 x 18 inches (image; Wikipedia commons).

It’s akin in its asymmetry, use of s-curves and color. It captures that baroque sense of dynamic energy that seems to move in every direction at once.  Untitled (Torch Bouquet) and Untitled (Harpsichord) prove to me that a material as humble as twine can be exuberant, detailed and achieve a similar sense of grandeur usually reserved for marble. The central piece is quite wide and bulbous at the top, tapering toward the floor. Throughout the piece there are cardboard planks that flatten out protruding areas like giant tongue depressors.

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William J. O’Brien, Detail of Untitled (Torch Bouquet).

These are neatly wrapped in twine and are reminiscent of the posterior view of a God’s eye votive. Discerning the twine pieces is similar to the game of reading clouds, ones pareidolia is turned on. I see gestures of figures and feet resting on a cloud shaped pedestal. Yesterday, I sat in a car drawing out clouds in my sketchbook. In order to describe in marks how it feels to observe them there on the outskirts of “the core3 ", I decided that I needed to harness their inner structure. I had to imagine each cloud as having an inner armature for its intangible fluffiness to cling to. These two sculptures made of cotton twine, felt and powder coated steel could be illustrations of my envisioned cloud skeletons. The artist uses twine to wring the felt from its flat state into curvilinear shapes that then twist and turn in space. From these coerced tubular forms and in the tangles of twine, a little suffering seeps out from these rococo-esque dramas. These stringy sculptures have the ability to make the sensuality of marble fall cold. Marble’s slippery condition is too smooth to satisfy the aesthetic needs of 2019, which demand beauty to be earnest, a bit more arthritic and raw.

Event Info

Event:William J. O’Brien "transitional objects"
Date:Aug. 3 - Aug. 31, 2019
Venue:Shane Campbell Gallery
Address:2021 S WABASH AVE, CHICAGO IL 60616
Hours:Tuesday - Saturday, 11 am - 6 pm
Telephone:Telephone: +1 (312) 226-2223

William J. O’Brien


2005 M.F.A. Studio Art, Concentration: Fiber and Material Studies, The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL

1997 B.A. Studio Art, Concentration: Ceramics. Loyola University Chicago, Chicago, IL


Tiffany Foundation Award Recipient, 2012
Artadia: The Fund for Art & Dialogue, 2007 Chicago Finalist, and Grant Recipient
Vermont Studio Center, Full Fellowship Residency
Mellon Award, Loyola University Chicago


The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois
New York Presbyterian Hospital, New York, New York
Miami Art Museum, Miami, Florida
The Cleveland Clinic, Cleveland, Ohio
Hara Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, Japan
The Saatchi Gallery, London, England
Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, Illinois
Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, California
Pérez Art Museum, Miami, Florida


  1. John Berger, "Hold Everything Dear: Twelve These on the Economy of the Dead", p.3 - p.5, Pantheon Books, 2007.
  2. Ibid
  3. Ibid