WORCESTER — Creativity, sexuality, and love. In our personal lives, they reflect our openness and our generosity, our wounds and our constrictions. Nowhere are we more naked, nor more fulfilled — if we’re lucky.
John O’Reilly has said his art is self-portraiture. For many years, he worked as an art therapist at Worcester State Hospital, and certainly the shadows and bruises of his own psyche show up in his work. His cunning, tender collages are now on view in “John O’Reilly: A Studio Odyssey,” at the Worcester Art Museum.
But his art is also much bigger than him, a foray through art and literary history that erases boundaries between high and low, then and now, idol and idol worshiper, artist and model.
“A Studio Odyssey” features more than 50 years of work from the artist, who was born in 1930. For many years, he exhibited occasionally, and mostly shared his art with friends. A late bloomer, he was tapped in 1995 for inclusion in the Whitney Biennial, and his career took off.
His intricate pieces contemplate the isolation and shame of growing up gay, closeted, and Catholic. He finds models and comrades in artists who went before him. In his large body of photo-based work, he tags fragments of art history to images of himself and cutouts from gay porn. That luscious little knot ties the erotic impulse with the creative one.
His Whitney Biennial work drew on the composer Benjamin Britten. In “Boat,” from that series, an angel holds up Christ’s corpse — it’s a reproduction of a painting by Renaissance artist Antonello da Messina. O’Reilly joins to it to a found photo of a nude man on his knees, leaning into Christ’s crotch.
Some will find this outrageous. I find it humble and poignant, a reclamation of sexuality shunned by the church, an insistence that sexuality is sacred. Its bodily frankness reminded me of a motif in Baroque art, the lactation of St. Bernard, in which the Virgin Mary squirts breast milk at a doubting monk and restores his faith.
So does the earliest work here, “Self-Portrait,” which features a nude laid out like a landscape, with a breast spurting milk to the heavens. O’Reilly presents the body as foundational. From it rise a medallion, a male torso, and a head peering through a frolicsome lake painting, all topped by a giant eye. The scene of pleasure and eruption marries sensation and imagination.
“A Studio Odyssey” pivots around O’Reilly’s relationships with three literary artists, Jean Genet (who wrote openly about homosexuality), Henry James (who portrayed isolation), and Constantine P. Cavafy (whose poems collapsed time).
But these are mere starting points. In her clever exhibition structure, Nancy Kathryn Burns, the museum’s assistant curator of prints, drawings, and photographs, echoes her subject’s associative leaps, and includes objects from the collection by artists O’Reilly admires, such as Thomas Eakins and William Hogarth.
Eakins’s photographic nude self-portrait shows up in “Eakins Posing,” coy and self-protective, hopeful yet still alone, separate from a masterful shuffle of fragmented nudes, Diego Velázquez’s ode to painting, “Las Meninas,” and a photo of O’Reilly’s own studio.
The artists O’Reilly references are like ancestors he prays to for solace. He has said that he doesn’t see them as influences; rather, he feels he merges with them.
“In a Dutch Dream” features a commanding image of the artist binding his wrist to that of a Saint Sebastian by Dutch Golden Age painter Hendrick ter Brugghen, as the torso of a supine nude from a porn magazine spills into the foreground. In the right-hand corner a toy-like acrobat and duck suggest another world, at another scale — evoking childhood play, the seedbed of art.
In the last decade O’Reilly has moved away from photography. He’s a Brimfield Fair regular; he scavenges old prints, used coloring books, and more. The coloring book pages hurtle us back to childhood scribbles, and the urges and apprehensions of youth.
In “The Apparition,” a boy in glasses sits up in bed; he might be 10 or 11. O’Reilly affixes a magazine cutout of a nude man beside the bed. That figure pulls the torn page of the coloring book across his hips as the boy tugs the bed sheet over his own. The coloring-book page covers the man’s face, but O’Reilly has cut it into a silhouette of a head — the man is at once masked and revealed.
We might assume the worst — that this is a picture of predation — but that would be to read a surreal image literally. Collages are made to defy literalism: Images we don’t think belong together are presented as one. Each of O’Reilly’s is like a little Joseph Cornell box: freighted with uncanny associations, violating the laws of reality — and sometimes propriety.
More likely, “The Apparition” depicts the boy and the man he is becoming, tussling with sexuality, and with hiding. Like Cavafy, who in the 20th century wrote poems that brought the present together with ancient Greece, O’Reilly throws chronology out the window; childhood, youth, adulthood, old age might all be happening at once.
Not all of O’Reilly’s works attempt to fathom sexuality. Lately, he’s been examining the fear and excitement of growing up during World War II. But all his art does embrace tensions: Between loneliness and joy, seeing and being seen, innocence and guile — the same tensions we all navigate, in our most intimate endeavors.
JOHN O’REILLY: A STUDIO ODYSSEY
At Worcester Art Museum, 55 Salisbury St., Worcester, through Aug. 13. 508-799-4406, www.worcesterart.org