The Austin Chronicle

"Conner O'Leary: Requesting Entrance"

Surrealism is alive and well at Farewell Books, thanks to the art of Conner O'Leary

Reviewed by Seth Orion Schwaiger, July 17, 2015, Arts

Farewell Books presents a modest show of eight paintings by Common House co-founder Conner O'Leary. The exhibition space presents a curatorial puzzle dialing in at less than 300 square feet and having large openings in three of its four walls to allow for traffic between Farewell Books proper to the north, a space for pop up shops to the west (currently occupied by designers Cast & Crew out of Marfa), and Flat Track Coffee to the south. "Requesting Entrance" is one of the most appropriate uses of that sort of exhibition space, and not just by name.

The term "surreal" gets thrown around frequently in reference to art, mostly when people mean strange, alien, or uncanny. O'Leary's work is surreal by these measures, but is also surreal in a more accurate sense, that is, following in the tradition of surrealism as an artistic movement, which has more specific aims than just making something look weird. Like Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, and the more recent Neo Rauch, O'Leary works with a personal set of symbols and precise painting methods to create illogical or dreamlike depictions of space and objects that are visually convincing despite their incongruence with reality – depictions that expose more of an internal, subconscious, even spiritual truth than concrete narrative or cold facts. Instead of the melting clocks or stilt-legged animals one sees with Dalí, O'Leary finds powerful symbolism in cigarette butts, traffic cones, painter's tape (depicted rather than applied), and, perhaps more understandably, windows, doors, and other portals.

What separates O'Leary's work from simple rehashings of previous surrealist discoveries is his very contemporary sense of humor, something that's become a shared Common House style among its founders (see "William Gaynor: Walking Down the Road Feeling Really Fucking Bad," Arts Review, May 29). In Living and Dying in the Holy Land, a glassy plane reflecting either the sky or the sea leans against a tan wall borrowing its color from the exposed birch of the painting's surface. The plane's shadow falls on a pink, sharply geometric box holding up a candle emanating a pitch black smoke that shifts off the panel in an opaque rectangle. A scrap of paper with highlighter-yellow scribbles and a barely discernible word "develop" is adhered to the box with the trademark blue painter's tape that finds its way into several of O'Leary's works. Floating weightless above it all is a burnt-out match, an iPhone, an iPhone morphing into a red dry brick, and the brick itself. Those last three iterations play off millennial slang/nerdspeak for the death of a smartphone: the phone is bricked (from the idea that the thing that was once holding your life together is now essentially an expensive brick).

That sort of humor and O'Leary's unique set of symbols removes his practice from what might otherwise be viewed as work pining for the art world of the Twenties. Paired with an informed color palette and daring compositional play, that humor anchors O'Leary's work in the art world of today and makes for an exhibition that's one of the best that's come from the exhibition space weirdly – some might say surreally – wedged between a coffee shop, rotating pop-up shops, and a specialty bookstore.

"Conner O'Leary: Requesting Entrance"

Farewell Books Gallery, 913 E. Cesar Chavez
Through Aug. 23

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