Artist Kelly O’Brien’s solo exhibition has teeth

"Unprecedented Curiosity" (from left), "Unprecedented Confusion" and "Unprecedented Anxiety" by artist Kelly O'Brien.
Courtesy of Day & Night Projects
"Unprecedented Curiosity" (from left), "Unprecedented Confusion" and "Unprecedented Anxiety" by artist Kelly O'Brien. Courtesy of Day & Night Projects

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Baboons, dogs and tigers bare their teeth in paintings and sculptures dedicated to emotions of anger and fear.

Artist Kelly O’Brien titles her artworks after the kind of extreme emotions — anxiety, confusion, hopelessness and dread — that seemed de rigueur in 2020.

So there’s a lot to relate to in O’Brien’s solo exhibition at Day & Night Projects. Her paintings and sculptures rendered in shades of blood and bile are devoted to all the swirling emotions America has a hard time keeping in check these days. The title of the show is “Unprecedented,” a word that seemed to come up a lot in the past year to describe words, actions, insurrections, political upsets, pandemic death tolls and cataclysmic happenings of every stripe.

O’Brien is a Georgia State University Master of Fine Arts grad currently living and teaching in Wisconsin, who has come back to exhibit in the compact West End Day & Night space where her outrageously colorful work has a lot of impact. O’Brien’s exhibition illustrates the power of a plain white gallery space when paired with fairground-flamboyant artwork that riots and rages against all of that blankness.

"Unprecedented Expectations" by artist Kelly O'Brien.
Courtesy of Day & Night Projects
"Unprecedented Expectations" by artist Kelly O'Brien. Courtesy of Day & Night Projects

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

From a distance O’Brien’s bright pink, red and yellow hues and overstuffed soft sculptures suggest a perky playscape for kids. You definitely want to come closer. But watch those hands!

The twin circumstance of a pandemic quarantine and her first pregnancy inspired O’Brien to start painting sharp, pointy teeth: dog teeth, zebra teeth, lion teeth. In her artist’s statement she describes it as a subconscious fear of getting sick, or her baby getting sick. In a year in which we’ve kept our smiles and snarls hidden behind masks, O’Brien’s nightmare is gnashing teeth and flying, foamy spittle, blood and breath. I’m just not sure if all the bared teeth rendered in “Unprecedented” convey the fear of a contaminating populace or the “stay back” warning of a mama bear guarding her cub.

Fangs emerge like a werewolf from the London fog as a vaporous blood red snarl against a field of scarlet in “Unprecedented Anxiety.” In “Unprecedented Acceptance,” O’Brien paints a tiger baring its terrifying stalactite teeth, head thrown back in a gesture of warning. But there’s also something familiar in the black depth of that mouth and the soft pink halo of fur. Like a black velvet painting, that violent gesture is both ferocious and sensual. Many of O’Brien’s renditions of snarling Dobermans and baboons with fangs bared are abstracted, and slightly surreal, like a frozen moment in a dream.

"Unprecedented Irritation" (from left), "Unprecedented Acceptance and "Unprecedented Expectations" by Kelly O'Brien.
Courtesy of Day & Night Projects
"Unprecedented Irritation" (from left), "Unprecedented Acceptance and "Unprecedented Expectations" by Kelly O'Brien. Courtesy of Day & Night Projects

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

At the base of several of her teeth paintings, O’Brien plops Claes Oldenburg-style beanbag-shaped sculptures, also painted in visceral, road sign-vivid colors, that can suggest something hacked up from the critter’s gullet. Sometimes those blobs also boast teeth and mouths themselves, suggesting attack from every angle. One of the most compelling pieces is “Unprecedented Protection” in which one of O’Brien’s soft sculptures looks like it’s being fed through a meat grinder. With its jester hat of bright yellow hair, the grimacing figure may trigger memories of another angry man with a flamboyant hairstyle.

"Unprecedented Protection," by Kelly O'Brien
Courtesy of Day & Night Projects
"Unprecedented Protection," by Kelly O'Brien Courtesy of Day & Night Projects

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Terror is clearly very much on O’Brien’s mind here and many of the works have a dab of painter Lucian Freud’s mottled, slightly horrific fleshiness crossed with some of the creepiness of Marilyn Minter’s contorted mouths. But there is something in the potato-sack figures and the yummy colors that can also feel like fun run amok. That feeling of mania continues in paint splatters and loops of color that extend beyond the parameters of the canvas like blood splatters or spittle as if the artist or the rage simply got carried away.

ART REVIEW

“Kelly O’Brien: Unprecedented”

Through June 26. Noon–5 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, or by appointment. The exhibition will also be available for view as photos on the Day & Night website. Day & Night Projects, 585 Wells St. SW, B1, Atlanta. 404-623-7289, www.daynightprojects.art.

Bottom line: Not every piece is a winner, but the overall effect of Kelly O’Brien’s solo painting and sculpture show dedicated to aggression and fear is captivating.

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