The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation
Above: “Untitled (Pillow Princess),” detail view. Photos by Rosie Sharp.
2013 Detroit Knight Arts Challenge winner Hatch is a collective in Hamtramck, Mich. that brings together the work of many artists, each with different perspectives and approaches. The latest is the work of Kasper Ray O’Brien, whose solo installation, “Show Me Love,” might be termed a “body of work” in the truest sense–nearly all the pieces are plaster casts created from silicon molds taken from his own body. O’Brien is exploring themes of objectification and the male-on-male gaze, and the work literally embodies the strain and pressure placed on the psyche in the process of offering oneself for appraisal and consumption within the world of m4m culture.
Each piece centers around a differently segmented version of O’Brien’s body–limbless torso, waist-down, only hands, only head–and the tableaux created by these incomplete figures suggest sexual encounters or invitations. The line between sexual invitation and “CSI” crime scene is thin, and there is a real tension in O’Brien’s work around the allure and danger of dealing with bodies in this way. When asked on March 12 during his artist talk at Hatch how it would make him feel to have one of his body pieces purchased and taken home with a collector, O’Brien said, “Oh, that has definitely happened. I try not to think about it. I can’t think about it.”
It has been said that a true artist bleeds for his art; in O’Brien’s case, it is actually true. Eschewing the use of Vaseline in his silicon body-casting, the initial molds take off a layer with them, a process O’Brien characterizes as, “Like getting a full body wax, done by yourself, for six hours. It hurts, it gets bloody.” The collateral damage is evident in one piece, “Untitled (2Shy),” which transferred O’Brien’s actual leg hair to his lower-half avatar.
“Untitled (2Shy),” detail view.
“Having had the pleasure of knowing you a long time,” said one of O’Brien’s friends during the open discussion at Hatch, “you do some pretty disturbing stuff to yourself sometimes.” There is surely a thread of masochism at play in this process, but in looking at the work, there is perhaps another interpretation. It is hugely difficult to fully objectify oneself–after all, we are privy to our own interior lives, know ourselves to be real human beings. It takes a great degree of detachment to make an object of one’s own body, and though O’Brien has done exactly that, he seems compelled to leave some trace of his humanity present in the work, even if it is just a fringe of leg hair. This is most directly obvious in the case of “Untitled (Looking),” which features a casting of O’Brien’s head, rendered in minute detail. The eyes are closed, perhaps asleep (though a disembodied head more readily suggests a beheading). The piece suggests that it is not O’Brien doing the looking, in this case. Perhaps, then, it is an appeal to us as viewers to see that the body in various postures belongs to a person, has a specific identity.
As much as our culture emphasizes attainment of material objects, and as much as we may pursue interactions with people who do not account for their involvement as actualized humans, there is a psychic toll we pay for doing so. Even as O’Brien is determined to present himself in the abstract within his works, he could not resist the desire to convey something of himself alongside his body. Several of O’Brien’s works are embedded with clusters of quartz crystals–he carves channels in the plaster castings and painstakingly installs them so they seem to grow from the flesh–and O’Brien says this is a metaphor not only of glamorized decay, but of formation under pressure. It takes a slow, pressurized buildup of elements to grow these crystals, and though they are beautiful, in the context of O’Brien’s dismantled body, they are also disturbing.
Kasper Ray O'Brien and his head, “Untitled (Looking).”
“It’s not really about me,” said O’Brien, of his work–paradoxical, of course, because it is arguably all about him. But in truth, O’Brien is accessing something broadly relevant by way of the personal, using his body as a kind of filter for fashion, dating and club culture that has formed a pressurized environment for identity and sexuality. In a sense, O’Brien is the crystal, refracting the light of society into these precise and careful works. His control over aesthetics, his deliberate choices, and the lengths to which he is willing to go to manifest his vision all pay off dramatically, with a cohesive and deeply affecting show that invites, if not love, at least respectful consideration.
“Show Me Love” runs through March 26 at Hatch Gallery, 3456 Evaline, Hamtramck.