Obrien Purple shadows

Tessa Greene O’Brien, Purple Shadows, 12 x 12 inches, oil on canvas, photo courtesy of Elizabeth Moss Galleries

“A lot of my paintings are about the ideas of home and memory and what the notion of home means.”


Tessa Greene O’Brien’s 2018 exhibition at Elizabeth Moss Galleries was a success on every level. It was not only good work but it marked a step forward for the Portland-based painter. It was critically-acclaimed. Collectors responded. It looked great.

O’Brien’s works featured images of structures: barns, garages, houses, buildings. Most looked like real places rendered loosely from photographs. But a particularly strong subset of the paintings appeared to be based on a simplified model of a barn structure. These works differed enough to give the idea that it wasn’t an actual, physical thing but an imagined model. The idea was too simple to be a house — even though the form is essentially the cartoon cliche of a house shape: a box with a symmetrically slanted roof. The leap was hardly difficult considering the painterly approach to the form: This was the artist’s dream studio. I don’t mean “fantasy” — considering how the works were striding forward with their framed constructions; they felt real, true, honest. O’Brien seemed to be willing this thing into reality. It had a sense of spirit, what the French call “esprit.”

But before we dig too far into this notion, we already have a vocabulary problem (and, no, I don’t mean the pretentious French thing): We’re talking about the construction of a building (the 2×4 kind of stuff), but this

obrien Moss 36x36 op

Tessa Greene O’Brien, Moss, 36×36 inches, oil on canvas, photo courtesy of Elizabeth Moss Galleries

is also the term O’Brien uses for making a painting. She “builds” her paintings. They are “constructed.” The same goes for the term “framing,” a critical term for the presentation of art — and it’s far more than slats of wood around a painting.

O’Brien is a sophisticated artist whose ability to speak about her work and art in general is unusually pronounced. I imagine it’s why her process and content are so seamlessly bound: She intentionally employs one to find and define the other.

The artist is clear that each of her paintings “specifically relates to a real-world subject. My works are about places and people I am familiar with even if none of that makes it into the final image in an overt way.” In other words, every one of her works is based on at least a kernel of reality. She explains why:  “I grew up looking at Andrew Wyeth’s paintings and drawings, which have such honesty, integrity, and rigor.” If she thinks her work lacks any of these qualities, it never leaves the studio.

O’Brien relates: “There are a lot of ideas about family and relationships and the ideas that go into a space. What’s relevant to me is how building a painting world relates to the idea of architecture. I feel there’s a tie-in between how I am conceptually learning to build my life and conceptually building a painting.” So, now it seems we’re talking on three levels of construction: a painting, a building and the artist herself.

obrien HotLight 48x48

Tessa Greene O’Brien, HotLight, 48 x 48 inches, oil on canvas, photo courtesy of Elizabeth Moss Galleries

And, yes, O’Brien has a studio: “I have a home studio I just finished building out after a year.” Yup, she built it. Looking at her works closely, this comes as no surprise: O’Brien’s structures are accurate from a builder’s perspective. In fact, this has driven the series of works she began in 2015: she worked with builders she knew and photographed their projects in process. “Architecture has been great for me,” she explains; “It gives me a way to organize paint — a formal project for arranging paint. I was photographing and painting other people’s houses, but there was a remove I wanted to get past. Each step made it more personal and meaningful… as would building the dream studio — which I hope to do someday.”

O’Brien’s images of this simpler structure were different on many levels. They were more abstract in terms of time of day, season, and place — all terms important to what the artist calls her need for “story.”

Yes, I asked her: That image is O’Brien’s dream studio. But, like any construction, it starts in the planning stage. You have to want something and then you build it. With the model house paintings, O’Brien has created her own symbol: the studio model. But here again we’re caught in multiple discourses at once: It’s a map for what an actual building could be, but it’s also a systems map for how O’Brien goes about making her paintings. On one hand, it’s the sanctuary she wants, but as her personal repeated symbol, it’s both her painterly tactic and a map of her artistic strategy. In other words, this might be an imagined object, but it’s a real artistic sanctuary for her. It is a mental, conceptual and spiritual place that happens to be exactly shaped like the physical paintings she makes out of it.

at top: Tessa Greene O’brien, Float, 36 x 36 inches, oil on canvas