6 - 29 March 2015

Surreal landscapes contain swirls of movement and colour. Exotic, tropical islands and staid, backyard hammocks are drawn together by gestural brushstrokes. They are either saturated with bleached light, or imbued with the deep purples of encroaching winter twilight. The dissonance between fiction and reality, the familiar and the unknown, are all swirled together in a sense of giddy lightness – autumn leaves are swept up in gusts of wind, curling around tree trunks before dispersing into the crisp air. Elsewhere, a beehive comes crashing down, its weight sending the roof of a shed into splinters; blue flecks rise from both hive and shed as though a gust of breath or some strange spirit had been expelled. Regular, everyday sights, such as tire swings and piles of raked leaves are in the process of either falling apart or being swept away, a reminder of the fragile nature of reality.

Despite the fluidity of each painting’s composition, the works of London-based Michael O’Reilly are the result of a labour-intensive studio practice. In Saltwater (6 – 29 March), running at the CABIN gallery, he presents us with a series of new paintings – not so much a “new direction, so much as an altered one,” he explains. The maelstrom of movement created within each canvas twists familiar narratives into moments of chomping, biting, crashing and swirling – the savagery of O’Reilly’s mark-making and intense use of colour further adding to the surreal nature of his oeuvre. With a calculated disregard for visual order, these landscapes (islands, swamps, backyards and swimming holes) seemingly merge into one strange and alternate universe, forcing us to re-evaluate and re-read what we thought of as familiar.

In fact, O’Reilly draws on a multitude of influences, from art historical references to Fauvism and Van Gogh (the latter evident in his use of swirling brush strokes), to an amalgamation of East and West through pop culture, literature and film. This is evident in Saltwater, as he continues to explore his interest in rugged lifestyles and vigorous exercise routines, using athleticism and exhaustion as a way in which to distort and re-imagine the familiar. We are guided through his landscapes in an almost trance-like state, a hypnotic romp through the backyard of his imagination where familiar images buckle under the affliction of the elements and of O’Reilly’s brush. Healthy recreation tips perilously close to hysteria – our own eyes no longer trustworthy in telling us whether what we see is really there, or is simply the result of too much strain under the weight of physical or mental exhaustion.

For O’Reilly, the act of painting itself is the result of an amalgamation of ideas, an ongoing intellectual process that sees him assimilate and process various images and ideas on canvas. Certain distinct visual cues are mined for their potential outcomes, finding themselves re-iterated throughout his canvases. The signature marks of O’Reilly’s strange, alternate universe – tires, hammocks, the great outdoors – slide and metamorphose from canvas to canvas, flipping expectations as they wander from one genre to another.

Just as thoughts, patterns and experiences are translated onto canvas, so too are moods, feelings and atmospheres through a careful selection of colour. O’Reilly skilfully blends them to enhance the slightly uneasy feeling found in his canvases. His spectrum is comprised of an array of highly-pitches hues that hark to the sickly, queasy and sweet, to the complimentary and uncomplimentary and to visual stereotypes (such as O’Reilly’s piercing blue skies or white suburban fences).

However, what is most important, perhaps, for the artist, is the decision of what to leave out, rather than include. It is only in the delicate omission of everything that is not essential to the painting that the narrative is allowed to breathe and details swim properly into focus: It is this process which allows for a very specific precipice from which to observe the scene.

In Saltwater, we enter a space where events are caught mid-movement – there is the sense that we are witnessing a frozen moment that precedes or follows a major event. In this pause, we are allowed to witness the beauty and idiosyncratic order that can be found in chaos – whether in the swirl of russet-coloured autumn leaves, or in the frozen ripples of water – the moment is all and all is in the moment. And perhaps what we thought we knew is not as it first appears.