Amy Raffel on Jill O’Bryan

Jill O’Bryan, Breaths #1, 2009, artist’s book: graphite on paper, punctured, 8 ½ x 8 x ½ inches (21.6 x 20.3 x 1.3 cm), closed. © Jill O’Bryan / Photo: Jill O’Bryan

Audio Transcript
The pages in Breaths #1 are pierced with pinholes. Each pinhole was made in the time it takes to breathe one breath. The process is one of meditation. The resulting images are of breaths, as if they are visible. Graphite was rubbed over the embossed paper so the graphite dust fell through the pinholes onto the following page. So each pinhole drawing is followed by a drawing that is its shadow. The book is one continuous drawing–a participatory drawing, if you will–because I’ve noticed that it is completely natural to view the book at a pace that also coincides with breathing. One page, a pause, a breath, and then the next page. The space that’s created between the viewer and the book is intended to catch the eye, but also catches the breath.

Jill O’Bryan’s delicate and thoughtful artist’s book, Breaths #1 from 2009, continues her longstanding investigation of aesthetics, meditation, and personal endurance. On each page of Breaths #1, the viewer can observe the amorphous forms composed of collected puncture marks and transferred graphite–each hole representing one breath taken by the artist. O’Bryan’s drawings usually have a spare, minimal quality to them and involve serially repeating colors, materials, and shapes. Throughout her oeuvre, O’Bryan uses the repetitive mark in various forms to represent the duration of individual breaths. In some of her other “Breaths” works she has astonishingly accumulated such representative marks into the tens of thousands. The patterns that arise from her breath markings are never intentional but rather emerge organically as fluid and dynamic shapes, here resembling seeds or tumbleweeds moving through air.

In Breaths #1, each page-spread of pulpy, unrefined white paper bears one or two groups of gathered puncture marks on a blank background, rubbed over with graphite. Each shape is similar in form and content, seemingly floating or turning across the page, but also unique–each differing slightly in size, placement, and number of holes. Having usually worked in singular drawings on paper, O’Bryan felt that this particular concept most appropriately called for the format of an artist’s book. In a book, she could present a continuum of drawings united by one theme; additionally, a book enables individual handling and encourages a personal, intimate encounter with her work. Furthermore, while O’Bryan does not think of the markings or punctures in her drawings as literal text, they initially related to her doctoral dissertation. After temporarily diverting her attention from her studio work to finish her dissertation in 2000, O’Bryan was searching for a way to return to drawing and the visual arts. She began to make marks as a symbolic erasure of her dissertation, with each mark eliminating a word, one by one. Eventually the artist’s original impetus dissipated, and her markings now explore the notions of breathing, endurance, and meditation. In this book format, however, a reference to early associations with text nevertheless remains present.

While the display of Breaths #1 under a plastic case does not allow for direct participation during the exhibition, the viewer will ideally turn the pages and see O’Bryan’s drawings in succession. Through the punctured holes of Breaths #1, O’Bryan allows air to move in and out of the pages as they are turned. In this way, O’Bryan translates the action of her breathing into both a physical and visual representation. The holes and graphite leave traces of the artist and her process; each grouping creates a mirror image on the verso of the page, playing with notions of exterior and interior, inhaling and exhaling. As a kind of therapy or meditation, O’Bryan establishes a natural rhythm of drawing with her body–a process as important as the final visual result.

Jill O'Bryan Biography

Jill O’Bryan (b. 1956, Chicago, IL) received her BA from Macalester College, St. Paul, Minnesota (1978), and her MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute, California (1990). She completed her PhD in the Department of Art and Art Professions at New York University (2000). O’Bryan was one of the first recipients of the Marie Walsh Sharpe Space Program Fellowship (1991-1992). She was a Graduate Assistant at New York University (1993-1995) and received several New York University Graduate Students Organization Travel Grants during her studies (1997, 1998, 2000). Her work was featured in a solo show at Gallery Joe, Philadelphia (2012). A notable recent work, entitled A billion breaths (2013), is a billboard on I-25 between Las Vegas and Santa Fe, New Mexico. O’Bryan has participated in group shows at the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo Esteban Vicente, Segovia, Spain (2009); the Katonah Museum of Art, Katonah, New York (2011); Danese, New York (2011); the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey (2012); the University of Richmond Museums, Virginia (2012); Gallery Joe, Philadelphia (2010, 2013); and Elizabeth Street Garden, New York (2014). O’Bryan is also active as a writer. She lives and works in New York City and Las Vegas.
Amy Raffel Biography
Amy Raffel (b. 1985, Madison, NJ) earned her BA with honors from Pennsylvania State University, University Park (2007) and completed her MA in Contemporary Art at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University (2010). She currently is an PhD Candidate (AbD) in Contemporary Art at the City University of New York Graduate Center and is teaching Introduction to Modern Art at Lehman College, New York. In addition, Raffel works part-time for Art History Teaching Resources and Artsy. She lives and works in New York City.