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Review: Michael James O’Brien, His Tender Heir

Michael James O’Brien, His Tender Heir
The Gallery Liverpool
, 8th-30th April 2017

Words, Patrick Kirk-Smith

As part of LOOK/17, The Gallery Liverpool are summing up 30 years of Michael James O’Brien’s work. The photographer’s international career has covered commissioned commercial work, fashion photography and celebrity portraits, but at the centre of this exhibition is the work O’Brien has done for himself.

Projects, ‘Girlfriend’ and ‘Portrait of a Young Man’, capture drag queens and outsider artists in the forms of photography usually reserved for magazine covers and the exhibition presentation isn’t far of that either. It’s a crisp exhibition full of crisp photographs, but each one marks a different point in the artist’s career, and tells a story far more blurred than the covering image.

The culmination of this ongoing retrospective is a wall of local faces, which, in a perfect homage to the career around the gallery, spans from the heights of the local art world, to the passers-by and gallery visitors. Artistic Directors, Sally Tallant (Biennial), Francesco Manacorda (Tate Liverpool) and Sarah Fisher (Open Eye Gallery), are hidden within the images of casual onlookers, who O’Brien thought it worth capturing.

The talking point though, well worth a visit in itself, is the portrait and project series around Mr Pearl (aka. Mark Erskine-Pullin), one of very few corset makers still with any level of celebrity. His commissions for Dita Von Tease have kept him in an alternative sort of limelight, but it’s the intimate portrayal of him through his work by Michael James O’Brien that puts this exhibition above simple portraiture.

The photographer sets out to find the identity of a man who defines himself through corsets, and in the only conventional portrait of Mr Pearl in the exhibition, the subject apparently insisted on being photographed against a brick wall to dispel any doubt over whether his waistline had been photo-shopped or altered. The rest of the series picks apart his studio with mannequins and gifts he has received that as absolute clarity on his identity as ‘corset maker/wearer’.

O’Brien’s exhibition for LOOK/17 sets The Gallery Liverpool up for a year-long programme of events exploring gay history, visibility and bravery since the 1957 Wolfenden Report and the 1967 Sexual Offences Act (both landmarks in the decriminalisation of homosexuality). The series of exhibitions, Homospectives is funded by Arts Council England, LOOK Festival, Homotopia, Bacaro, Open Eye Gallery and Liverpool Biennial, and developed and exhibited by curatorial team, DuoVision.

The exhibition closes on Sunday, 30th April 2017, so see it while you can. It’s the first step in a long line of exciting exhibitions marking a key turning point in British culture, and you’d be a fool to miss such a perfect summary of the culture that’s flourished since.