Odysseus in Massachusetts

Odysseus in Massachusetts

A century after Joyce, John O’Reilly offers beautiful photographic meditations on timeless myths

Just in time for the centenary of Bloomsday and the attendant attention on James Joyce’s “Ulysses” comes John O’Reilly’s “A Worcester Odyssey.”

O’Reilly, a photographer, lives well off the beaten track in Worcester, Massachusetts. He is kith and kin to Floral Park’s Joseph Cornell, both men making a practice of hording and accumulating objects, references, and images in all manner of permutation.

The protagonist in this photo production inspired by Homer’s classic tale is a young man named Donald. The catalyst for this project was a set of ten family photo albums (circa 1950 to 1960) focusing on the life of this fellow, also a Worcester resident, that came into O’Reilly’s procession. The setting, as with Joyce’s Dublin, is the mythic/poetic now.

All of the collaged Polaroids presented are black and white, 3 3/4 inches wide by 23 to 28 inches long. Abetted by this compressed horizontal format, O’Reilly deeply crenulates the visual space he has created. The dynamic result is similar to having a painted fan snapped open in your face, with a bounty of images spilling out before you.

Humor drops in for tea all the time in O’Reilly’s idyllic world, especially in “Off Grove Street-Donald and the Cyclops,” where a giant Terry Gilliam/Monty Python foot plops down in the center of the frame. In “Grafton St. Studio-Donald in Troy,” the visual themes of ladders, wall, and arches are presented ad absurdum in shadows, cut out silhouettes, and photographs of photographs, and are even echoed in fruit shapes. Everything circles back on itself in this world where stacked toys become classic temples that are then transformed into birdhouses.

Building blocks, a Worcester stream, and a field of classical columns all build toward the center of “Grafton St. Studio-Donald and Lairs of Skylla and Charybdis.” Here several formal portraits of sailor boys, a candid army barracks nude, a fragment of Thomas Eakins’ “Bathers,” and a Greek vase painting of a bearded man and a piping youth all vie for your attention. Tiny images on the right, Donald and a pal paddle a canoe out the picture, literally moving beyond these “difficult choices,” finding escape from the choice between a rock and a hard place.

“Grafton St. Interior—Donald and the Suitors” presents an unfolding portfolio of images—Jesus in ecstasy, several first Communion boys, Marsden Hartley’s “Fisherman’s Pieta,” and a number of Count Van Gloeden’s Neapolitan youths, all hip shot and naked playing at statues.

Narrative and art historical references aside, O’Reilly’s work can be enjoyed on the basis of visuals alone. The truly wonderful thing here is the equivalence of spirit, innocence, and beauty.

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