It’s such a treat to be able to follow an artist closely, watch their development and blossom, and even get an occasional update on what’s happening in their lives from time to time. This is the type of relationship we’ve been having with Justin Liam O’Brien who is about to close Dreams, his 2nd solo and 4th overall presentation with Monya Rowe gallery in New York City.

We were instant fans the moment we first laid eyes on O’Brien’s work so we’ve interviewed him ahead of his solo debut with this same gallery back in 2019. At the time, painting was a side thing for him but things started changing quickly from there. We caught up with the Brooklyn-based artist with a magazine interview after his European solo debut last year, at the moment he completely immersed into his studio practice as things started shifting gears for him and his work. “Oh my god, I’m making paintings that were in my mind, but I just didn’t know it,” the artist described the feeling, enjoying the ability to dwell deeper into himself and approach his process more confidently and more intuitively. After the initial single or paired character compositions serving as sort of visual diary, O’Brien started creating crowded scenes that would describe ambiguous emotions often relating to loneliness in a crowd. And looking at his current show, this concept evolved into mixing reality with fantasy or mythology, and ultimately creating portrayals of dreams, the most intimate, inner thoughts, and similar mental states. 

“Dreaming is like cruising the back alleys of our mind. Images are dredged up and spooled into a nightly film, passing uneasily, erotically, from one to another,” O’Brien mentioned in the poetic statement released for the show, suggesting the personal significance of this body of work. While conceptually moving inwards, from depicting actual intimate moments from his life over setting up imaginary yet plausible scenes to now working within the sphere of fantasy, there is a great shift taking place in the artist’s technique and aesthetic as well. Essentially more fluid and non conforming to the rules of earthly physics, as well as existing in the scenery not prone to the common laws of perspectives, both the protagonists and their setting are now rendered with more determination, with sharper edges and notable expressions on their faces. Still highly stylized and voluminous, they are now involved in such monumental and significant scenes as Baptism, Nativity, or NYC Inferno, all 2021, taking roles of semi-immortal mythical beings. Resolute about utilizing his ability to tell a story with a single image, O’Brien is also using a wide range of colors and working with diverse compositions in order to construct narratives that are more revealing and more meaningful, clearly ready to step away from the limiting Earthly sphere.  —Sasha Bogojev