Maureen O'Leary: Both/And

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Maureen O’Leary: Both/And A

ISBN: 978-1-7355856-9-7

Maureen O’Leary: Both/And April 22 – May 27, 2022



Both/And, Maureen O’Leary solo exhibition of new paintings, is full of historical references. Her use of bright pigments and energetic brushstrokes recalls the Fauvist strategies employed by Matisse. The haunting mood of the works and their off-kilter spirit suggest a kinship with Symbolism’s interest in the metaphorical. Josef Albers’s book Interaction of Color inspired the artist to experiment with expressive and lurid colors, coalescing into recognizable forms and scenes. Both/And represents O’Leary’s deft synthesis of these quotations into her vision of the world. Ficus, Santa Monica, is a prime example of the artist’s use of color to flatten space and manipulate perspective. Her strong, gestural strokes coupled with vivid hues create forms of unmodulated color. Sidewalks and streetways are pink and blue, shadows magenta and purple. The glowing orange ficus tree extends across the canvas, its roots spilling about the pavement, dwarfing the house and car in the background. O’Leary’s expressive approach to the landscape reinforces the moody undercurrents of her paintings. The ficus tree stands large and immobile against an eerie yellow sky empty of clouds with thin purple shadows stretching long behind other trees. The scene is airless and nearly lifeless, aside from the ficus whose roots snake forward toward the viewer, crawling off the canvas. O’Leary’s paintings of memories, domestic scenes, natural landscapes and intimate moments marry the sublime with the psychological. They immortalize the everyday while encoding small glitches in their layers of paint. As suggested by the exhibition’s title, the artist is always seeking “contrast without conflict”; things can be both romantic and sad, both beautiful and unsettling. Landscapes are flattened and unnaturally hued and still feel realistic. This new group of works embraces this spectrum of values and their absolute mutability.





Commuter Platform with Dogwood (My Mother), 2022. oil on linen. 60 x 48 inches (152.4 x 121.9 cm). Collection Ricki and Joe Rosenberg. 7




The Road #2, 2020. oil on linen. 48 x 32 inches (121.9 x 81.3 cm). 11




Feral Palm Tree, Santa Monica Backyard, 2021. oil on linen. 32 x 32 inches (81.3 x 81.3 cm). 15


Garage in the Trees, 2022. oil on linen. 16 x 14 inches (40.6 x 35.6 cm). 17




Sky with Small Palm, 2022. oil on linen. 20 x 14 inches (50.8 x 35.6 cm). 21


Caged Pool and Plant, 2022. oil on linen. 20 x 14 inches (50.8 x 35.6 cm). 23


Maureen O’Leary: Everyday/Sublime Allison Unruh

Unbridled and animated plant life is one of the key motifs that leap out of Maureen O’Leary’s recent paintings. Highlighted in a number of works in her solo exhibition Both/And, exuberantly painted vegetation such as twisting branches or spiky leaves sprawl outwards from her canvases in colorful bursts. Bold and vivid, these works encapsulate O’Leary’s keen eye for the eccentric in the prosaic—each tree, shrub or flower asserting a lively presence that visually dominates the human-made environments, which attempt to hem them in. Ficus, Santa Monica, for example, is an unassuming landscape turned upside down. Its titular subject confidently extends its bright tentacle-like branches and roots against an unexpectedly pink sidewalk, blue pavement and yellow sky, dwarfing a toy-like car, which, along with the palette, nods to its Californian setting. As their titles suggest, Caged Pool and Plant and Pruned Tree and Gate represent human attempts at controlling the wild aspects of these beings. Yet the fences and walls only provide foils for the swaying and stretching of the plants’ persistent limbs, and the electric contrasts in the palette only serve to heighten this effect. The suggestion of an unstoppable, primal life force is almost comically exaggerated in the high-key colors that extends to the shadows, particularly in works such as Sky with Small Palm with its blood red shadows dabbed with frenetic strokes of paint against an acid yellow ground. There is even something slightly prehistoric suggested in the bold shapes and outsize scale of some of the plants that O’Leary features. In Feral Palm Tree, Santa Monica, another wonderful study of the contrast of deep reds and yellows, a squat tree’s dense and spiky limbs are amplified by its colorful shadow, almost monstrous in its overpowering of the backyard setting. With broad, flat strokes of contrasting shades of paint that heighten the subjects’ asymmetric


patterns, O’Leary’s depictions of Los Angeles flora echo a variety of art historical styles. These range from Symbolist-like experiments with non-representational and emotionally charged coloration seen in late-nineteenth-century works by artists such as Edvard Munch, to the ferociously energetic palette and slightly awkward contours of early works by Henri Matisse and fellow Fauvist painter André Derain. The work of the German Expressionist artists of Die Brücke such as Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff also resonates throughout many of her paintings. The impact of the latter painters is especially evident in O’Leary’s predilection for searing pinks and oranges, and reds and greens that abruptly abut one other. As is the case for many other painters working in a neo-expressionist style, the raw power of color freed from representational bounds and the rejection of illusionistic modeling in such early twentieth-century avant-garde works are important aesthetic touchstones that recur throughout O’Leary’s work. Like her predecessors, O’Leary’s unexpected juxtapositions of bright colors, serpentine lines and bold silhouettes jostle within an anti-illusionistic flattened picture plane that serves to jolt us out of rote habits of seeing. With the eye-popping effects of an exaggeratedly vivid palette and contours, O’Leary’s paintings also draw out the character of wildness in her subjects, repeatedly stimulating contemplation of the profusion and indefatigable quality of these forms of organic life. Based on observations gathered through photos that she takes, O’Leary’s compositions are sometimes hybrids of different places and subjects, or free adaptations of a singular source image1. Her interventions bring out the humor and strangeness of elements of her environment that might be overlooked, bringing a sharp eye to what is often quite unassuming subject matter. The paintings also vary in mood, from the exuberance of the recent Los Angeles works to the

From author’s conversation with Maureen O’Leary, April 18, 2022.


earlier landscapes that center on nocturnal scenes lit by the glow of car headlights. In paintings such as The Hill and The Road #2, cars navigate through dark tree-covered roads in settings that seem both everyday and dream-like. Lit by the headlight beams from below, the cars illuminate the canopy of trees with an almost otherworldly effect of light. In The Hill we see a car obscured by a thick grove of trees that creates a camouflage-like pattern above with other lights in the distance creating a cinematic sense of suspense and mystery. Equally enigmatic, The Road #2 depicts a car nearing an unknown bend in the road, with a dark red swirl in the forest ahead that gapes open like a fantastic portal. Such works demonstrate O’Leary’s play with a certain noirish atmosphere, underwritten by her deceptively simple yet ambiguous and evocative brushwork. While they have a marked freshness and spontaneity as well as contemporary feel to their subjects, her paintings also seem to build upon a longer history of romantic tropes that go back to the nineteenth century, including the use of landscape painting to explore inner states and feeling.

bright pink sky. A nearby bird and tree add a bit of a pastoral note, while the taillights of the train looming over her shoulder add a comic effect offset by a touch of menace in a shadowy figure nearby. Based on a photo of her mother2, the painting takes a moment of seemingly banal commuter life and transforms it into something both haunting and beautiful, with shades of early Matisse melded with the grind of the everyday.

Scholar on a Tour and High Rise Neighbor cast more overtly humorous effects in their presentation of partially obscured figures through the use of an alluringly expressionistic play with color and spatial depth. The former painting seems a bit of a send-up of intellectual absorption, with a grey-haired figure totally immersed in a newspaper that obscures his face, willingly oblivious to the cheery yet somewhat flattened surroundings that fellow tourists behind him take in. The palette has a wonderfully charming effect, with the grisaille folds of the newspaper rhyming with the grey stripes in the figure’s shirt, contrasted with clashing tones of a green wall and pink clouds above. High Rise Neighbor presents In addition to her intriguing plant and landscape another fragmentary portrait, this time the hands of paintings, O’Leary has a range of works that center a smoker poking out of a colorful apartment block on the human figure, which are rife with equal parts above a sunny tropical landscape. This work is mystery and humor. Her high-key palette and unexrelated to a number of O’Leary’s other colorful porpected color combinations, together with her eye for traits of furtive cigarette smokers. The alternate the latent drama in everyday gestures, imbues her otherwise seemingly ordinary subjects with an eccen- ly taut and relaxed hands signal a whole psychological world of the unseen figure taking in the view, an tric edge. In Commuter Platform with Dogwood (My Mother), a slightly mysterious figure strides toward us, uncertain mix of pleasure and tension. The animated fronds of the palm trees below and the toy-like car her lower face obscured by a scarf or mask, striking further lend a spatial ambiguity and dynamism that is a bold silhouette in a long coat that is doubled by underlined by the bright color palette, with an amusthe prominent shadow cast in front of her. There is a lively and strange atmosphere created in the contrast ing touch in the cloud of smoke that echoes the pinktinged cloud above. between the maroon tones of her figure, highlighted by bits of orange, and the blues and greens of her O’Leary has a great talent for examining the familiar shadows contrasted with unexpected pastel shades and seemingly nondescript built environments, such as peach tones of the train platform and a


O’Leary in conversation with Candace Moeller, Director, Cristin Tierney Gallery, March 24, 2022.


drawing out both telling details and uncanny effects. Her works are particularly attuned to the humor and expressive potential that can be found in the collision between the mundane nature of the human-driven suburban sprawl and the lyrical effects of plant life, animals, and the animated skies above. Such effects are particularly conveyed in the immediacy of her light painterly touch and the surprising combinations and contrasts in her palette. In addition to the aforementioned works in Both/And, recent paintings such as Ranch Houses and Garage in the Trees also feature electric clashes of color to render prosaic subjects that might be found in any suburb across the country. Here, bright red trees extend against cerulean blue skies, defamiliarizing the familiar peaked roofs and creating a spatial ambivalence that results in almost entirely abstract compositions. Again, there are shades of the Fauves’ and Expressionists’ aggressive coloration and contours, although such works also clearly demonstrate the effects of her interest in Josef Albers’ influential experiments in the dynamism and mutability of color.3 Lastly, there are also a number of works that emphasize elements of wonder and mystery that might be found in our present-day backyards. Jupiter, the Heavens seems particularly of-the-moment, with a stargazer contemplating the infinite through a smartphone he holds aloft. Dog at Home with Blossoms gives the impression of a casual idyll, depicting a phantom-like dog momentarily perched in a window surrounded by signs of emerging spring.

is the way it seems to actively shift our attention between an appreciation of the everyday and sublime. Together, her paintings might even be seen to raise questions about the potential for seeing an enchanted, connected and living universe, even in the often-fragmented experience of our daily surroundings—surreal, awkward, humorous, melancholic, and unabashedly beautiful.

The title of the exhibition Both/And alludes to O’Leary’s stated interest in “contrast without conflict.” 4 One dimension of that interest might be seen to lie in the attunement to visual tension in her painting, the chromatic contrasts, and eccentricities of figures and settings that heighten one another. Another backand-forth dynamic that runs through this body of work


From author’s conversation with Maureen O’Leary, April 18, 2022.


O’Leary in conversation with Candace Moeller, Director, Cristin Tierney Gallery, March 24, 2022. 27


High Rise Neighbor, 2021. oil on linen. 40 x 30 inches (101.6 x 76.2 cm). Private Collection. 29


Untitled, 2022. oil on linen. 12 x 12 inches (30.5 x 30.5 cm). 31




Scholar on a Tour, 2022. oil on linen. 32 x 32 inches (81.3 x 81.3 cm). 35


Jupiter, the Heavens, 2022. oil on linen. 46 x 46 inches (116.8 x 116.8 cm). 37




Ficus, Santa Monica, 2022. oil on linen. 48 x 32 inches (121.9 x 81.3 cm). 41


Pruned Tree and Gate, 2022. oil on linen. 20 x 14 inches (50.8 x 35.6 cm). 43


The Hill, 2020. oil on linen. 32 x 48 inches (81.3 x 121.9 cm). Private Collection, New York. 45




Dog at Home with Blossoms, 2022. oil on linen. 32 x 32 inches (81.3 x 81.3 cm). 49


Ranch Houses, 2022. oil on linen. 14 x 20 inches (35.6 x 50.8 cm). 51

Maureen O’Leary’s (b. 1965, Washington, DC) paintings hover between figuration and abstraction. Her mundane scenes become substrates for experimentation with the application of paint and the evolving notion of what is real. O’Leary’s work has been exhibited at the Fondation des États-Unis, Ely Center of Contemporary Art, Art Lab Tokyo, Midwest Center for Photography, Artspace, Power Plant Gallery at Duke University, Valdosta State University Fine Arts Gallery, Staten Island Museum, Meadows Gallery – University of Texas at Tyler, and more. She is the recipient of the Brooklyn Arts Council – Brooklyn Arts Fund Grant and the Harriet Hale Woolley Fellowship from the Fondation des ÉtatsUnis. O’Leary has published two books: Record (2021, Midwest Center for Photography) and Belle Mort (2013, Paper Chase Press). Her work is held in the collections of the Fondation des États-Unis, The JPMorgan Chase Art Collection, Fidelity Investments Corporate Art Collection, and the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University.


Photography credits:

Elisabeth Bernstein: 4-5, 9, 12-13, 19, 32-33, 39, 47

Cristin Tierney Gallery 219 Bowery, Floor 2 New York, NY 10002 212.594.0550

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