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An Sionnach
A Journal of Literature, Culture, and the Arts
Spring, 2008

Elizabeth O’Reilly: Paintings and Collages
By John Gooodrich

Five prior exhibitions at George Billis have proved Elizabeth O’Reilly to be a gifted painter of light-filled, elegantly reductive landscapes reminiscent of such veteran painters as Lois Dodd and Alex Katz. Last summer, the installation of her watercolors at the gallery showed another side of the artist. The bracingly direct observations in these watercolors seemed to distill the energy of her oil paintings. The artist’s current show at George Billis consists mostly of oil landscapes and city scenes, but it also includes explorations in yet another medium: collages of watercolor-tinted paper. Though somewhat downplayed by the installation – these ten works are collectively titled “Watercolor Collages, various dimensions, 2007” – they represented some of the highlights of the exhibition.

In terms of plastic modeling, collage inherently lacks the sensuous flexibility of oils and the svelteness of pure watercolor. This doesn’t hamper O’Reilly, however, whose small images of street scenes and harbor views seem at once jewel-like and gritty. In them, the chunky shapes of streets and bridges, muscularly arrayed in space, are illuminated by delicate tints and powdery granulations of pigments. These collages seem simultaneously awkward, delicate, and trenchant. Despite the technical restrictions of the medium – or just possibly because of them – they amplify the most intriguing qualities of O’Reilly’s work, which for me lie not so much in rich atmosphere and graceful surface pattern but in the rhythmic momentum of forms.
In one collage, a thin wedge-shaped scrap of paper, tint blue-green, drives forcibly up past the design’s center before arresting the eye at a quieter zone of layered purples-grays and pale lime-greens. A few notes of darker green model its volume, explaining it’s real-world identity: a metal railing, separating pavement from water as it plunges into space and to, eventually, a gentle unfolding of hills and houses. The poignancy of this little image lies in the independent vitality of its forms. O’Reilly has located these object’s characters, rather than merely enumerating them. Their personalities emerge, moreover, not from technical facility – from picturesque brushwork, say – but from the simplest, most irreducible formal means.  

While not every collage builds with such momentum, two views of highway overpasses are also exceptionally vigorous. In one of these, a looming, blackish-teal form spreads through most of a square composition: the overhead mass of an elevated highway. Smaller elements elaborate the impact of its shadowy containment; facets of sky glimmer between stretching steel supports, while lampposts, dully gleaming against the evening sky, arc up to barely meet the roadway’s sweeping edge. Again, a few tinted bits of paper have produced startling sensations – in this case, weighty presences and voids, stretching and compressing, and dark expanses punctuated by notes of light.

Behind the desk hang several of O’Reilly’s excellent watercolors of figures from her previous show. The bulk of the installation, however, is devoted to recent oil paintings, a number of which reveal the same energetic observations as the strongest collages. “Yellow Signs and Bridge, ME” (2007) and “Strong Shadows and Bridge, ME” (2007) both present end-on views of a steel-girder span, its rectilinear shape dramatically interrupting the sprays of trees beyond. Less dynamic is “Cushing Bridge, Reflected” (2007), which conveys sunlight and surface textures with no less verve, but composes rather equivocally; perhaps because it lacks a striking point of perspective, it seems to be a little interested in everything – bridge, water, reflections – but compelled by no one element. The same might be said of the largest oil here, “Old Gas Station, Shelter Island” (2007), in which smart brushwork and abundant atmosphere don’t entirely compensate for the passive relating of building, trees, and ground.  

However, three oil paintings of night scenes are quiet marvels, beautifully capturing the rhythmic force of observed events. Deep, nuanced blues and brown-reds in “Studio Center from Bridge” (2007) capture the shifting facets of a building rising in the darkness, while numerous, varied light yellows weigh in perfectly as the myriad windows perforating its walls. In all three paintings, we get the tactile pleasures of painting – the suggestive brushwork, the thick atmosphere – but also the powerful compositional coordination of her collages. They promise much for O’Reilly’s next round of paintings.

Until December 8 (511 W. 25th St., between Tenth and Eleventh avenues, 212-645-2621).

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