Blessings in progress: Titus O’Brien’s drawings speak to viewer on multiple levels

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“Beatitude Study: (Tenkara)” by Titus O’Brien evokes thoughts of flowing water and Asian silk textile designs in his “Beatitude Studies” exhibition.

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The Inpost Artspace at the Outpost Performance Space is hosting “Beatitude Studies” by Titus O’Brien through Oct. 27. The solo exhibition features 15 colored pencil drawings, 16 photographs and one sculpture that share a contemplative state of being.

O’Brien begins each drawing with a grid, like artists reaching back to ancient Egypt, Persia, China and elsewhere who used grids as foundations to support more complex compositions in art and architecture.

In the early 1960s New York artist Larry Poons, who was born in Tokyo, created a grid-based series of paintings that allowed him to randomly place ellipses or dots drawn from points on the grid. When the painting was completed the resulting composition echoed randomly falling leaves.

In works like “Beatitude Study (Tenkara),” O’Brien borders a predominantly blue fluidic design with narrow variegated yellow and orange rectangles. The highly varied borders on his entire installation of square compositions lend his drawings the look of Buddhist tangka paintings, weavings and abstract visual prayers called yantras.

There are also parallels between Chinese and Japanese silk textile designs in works like “Beatitude Study: (Golden Road),” “Beatitude Study: (Green Dragon Cave)” and “Beatitude Study: (Silky Slivers).” His color choices, though arrived at randomly, are harmonious and quite beautiful.

O’Brien has a complex life story that includes a master’s in fine arts from Yale and studies of Zen Buddhism in Korea and Japan. His bio includes teaching gigs including the Chicago Art Institute, a current curator’s position at the Albuquerque Museum, an educational stint in Australia, a close encounter with avant-garde musician John Cage and family ties in Colorado.

O’Brien is the rare individual who could play both roles in the film “My Dinner with Andre” featuring the quiet humanist Wally and the wildly experiential Andre. The two discuss their highly contrasting views of life, theater and spirituality throughout the 1981 film.

Unlike his action laden bio, O’Brien’s artist statement underlines the quietude sought in his drama-eschewing artwork, which can be described as an intuitive form of visual meditation. During his relationship with Cage, O’Brien was introduced to Zen practice and Cage’s noteworthy use of the I Ching while composing music.

The show’s title “Beatitude Studies” derives in part from the eight beatitudes or blessings offered by Jesus in Matthew’s introduction to the Sermon on the Mount. There are beatitudes in Buddhist teachings as well, a religion 500 years older than Christianity.

Though O’Brien wants to avoid illustration of such ideas and maintain informed abstraction, his method of flipping coins and rolling dice to make color and formal decisions echoes Cage’s I Ching approach. There are eight trigrams in the I Ching resulting in 64 hexagrams. The formation of each hexagram can be determined by tossing coins or yarrow sticks.

O’Brien’s single untitled sculpture is a three-dimensional drawing in space made from 125 feet of aircraft cable held together by colored zip ties. The wall-mounted presentation is reminiscent of Pablo Picasso’s light drawings executed in pitch-black darkness with a light pen and captured on film.

When New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman wrote “The Accidental Masterpiece: The Art of Life and Vice Versa” he referenced vernacular photography, often hidden in shoeboxes, as an untapped source for art that far exceeded its intention. In a candid shot of a smiling relative the Brownie box camera may also capture the Hindenburg on its flaming fall to the earth.

O’Brien’s 16-square format photographs in the exhibition were inspired by his years of shooting square format Polaroids. Though none of his pics captured the Hindenburg they do have a vernacular presence at least partly informed by O’Brien’s desire to take notes of passing phenomena.

Whether drawing, building a sculpture or using a camera O’Brien is tuning into his locus on a physical, psychological and spiritual level. This is a wonderful show. Two thumbs up.

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"Beatitude Study: (Golden Road)" by Titus O'Brien offers beautiful color harmonies in a composition reminiscent of Navajo weavings that include a spirit path.

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"Beatitude Study: (Green Dragon Cave)" by Titus O'Brien reveals the breadth of design possibilities offered by a grid substructure.

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“Beatitude Study: (Silky Slivers)” by Titus O’Brien with a stylistic nod from Agnes Martin evokes the abstract emotions of a mountain range.

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