Thursday, 12 March 2015

Salt Licked Gummy Bears

Benjamin Bridges visits Michael O'Reilly's exhibition at Cabin Gallery and imagines what it would be like to be a giant gummy bear.

From left to right: VAMOOSE, TAR and SWASHING FEVER (2014)

On a Saturday when I was a wee lad my parents would take us to the sweet shop behind our house. A wall of little treasures not sold by weight but collected individually in off-white paper bags. I remember looking at their intense hues, thinking these translucent fruits and rubbery eggs could be mine for merely a penny a piece. I would ponder over which ones to get with my allotted 20p fretting as to whether I should invest a quarter of my capital into a big sugary dummy.

All of these bright synthetic colours, fuller and richer than any that had been made in all of history were now mine. These hues were combined with intense flavours to tingle my tongue, artificial and yet somehow hyper in palette – that sharp faux strawberry that bears no relation to its fruit counterpart or the acute orange flavouring of undiluted cordial.

O'Reilly's solo exhibition, titled Saltwater, brings together a sweetshop for the eyes with colours that made me salivate. In this small but well appointed galley I find myself surrounded by the same plethora of colour and intrigue as on the weekends of my youth. It’s like I have returned home clutching a silver heptagon in my hand, planning how best to indulge myself. Fittingly in a former life Cabin Gallery’s space used to be a local sweet shop.

But there is more to O'Reilly's paintings, once my eyes had adjusted to the waves of supersaturated greens and pinks, swirls and wisps, a more sinister side emerges. Something is not quite right. There is a grubbiness to these worlds. It’s as though Willy Wonka has passed away and his abandoned chocolate factory has fallen into disarray.

SWASHING FEVER, 2014, Oil on canvas, 150 x 170 cm

There is a bitterness in these worlds, as the title of the exhibition suggests, the water is not for drinking.  Maybe it is simply an honest reflection of the flawed nature of existence. An adult's recollection of childhood is often favourable in its selection of blissful memories but also critical of those things analysed in hindsight. These paintings appear to be glorious and golden memories that are also just a little grubby.

The images seem to be built from icons of childhood domesticity and a cinematic ideal of the American family holiday. As far as I can see these images are alien to O'Reilly's personal experience. Unlike earlier works, which often centred around the rural landscape of the Yorkshire Moors, these seem to be a land as alien to him as it is to the viewer.

TAR, 2014, Oil on canvas, 101.5 x 86.5 cm

Then there is movement and moments of calamity. A beehive falling into a kennel, a storm picking up and disrupting a pile of carefully gathered leaves, and what I presume to be ever swarming bees, but in these worlds nothing is solid. These saccharin landscapes have lost their way, caught in a moment of collapse.

I stand there and am unable to venture in. I am cut off. Like the eyes of Charlie Bucket looking longingly through the glass at a Wonka Bar. My nose is pressed tight as I steam up the glass. What I need is Ovid to cast his literary spell and transform me into a giant gummy bear, 6ft tall and transparent blue, I could step through the surface and into these worlds. For now my existence is insufficient and that leaves me a little disappointed. I just can’t understand whether I am wanting more or just wanting an escape.

But there is more than just this appraisal I compile as I sit at home reflecting on the show. In the moment when I see new work by O'Reilly, I often find myself bemused. I think “What is he doing here? Why did he choose to do it like that?” There is even and quite often a slight repulsion to his paintings. They offend my sensibilities and they grate what I seem to subconsciously enjoy in painting.

SAUNTERING KNEES, 2014, Oil on paper mounted on board, 60 x 84 cm

This grating experience happened on my first view of the works on paper in the gallery office. Acrylic paintings still mounted on the used wooden boards to which they were originally stretched. They are a new aspect of O'Reilly's practice and I thought at first glance that they seemed to be ham fisted, sloppy and once again, grubby. But then, after giving them some time, I was slowly drawn in. I am sure in part by the overpainted edges where his world disintegrates and only painted gesture remains. They worked as a much slower burn than their energy and spontaneity would initially suggest.

These are paintings that I love but could never bring myself to make. I suppose like the sweets in the sweetshop, I am finally seduced, but will always remain wary of the fact that they are clearly out to get me.


I should make it clear that I am a good friend of Mike’s. This of course could prove problematic in looking at this exhibition objectively, though it is well communicated between us that we really don’t like a good portion of each others work. On the other hand I have spent 7 years, talking, looking, interviewing, discussing, challenging, living with and learning from Mike and his practice, which I hope has given me a good insight into his first solo exhibition.

Benjamin Bridges

Saltwater by Michael O'Reilly is on display at CABIN Gallery (London, SW18) from March 6th to 29th 2015. 

VAMOOSE, 2014, Oil and acrylic on canvas, 104.5 x 85.5 cm

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