Artist Spotlight: Chris O’Brien

Chris O'Brien in the Arts Project Studio. Photo by Kate Longley.


Even though Chris O’Brien only began making his soft sculpture houses two years ago, the vivid and organic constructions are now beginning to define his practice. Blending fiction, popular culture, imagination and life stories, O’Brien’s colourful sculptures are characterised by the stories that underpin them; thunderstorms, relationship woes, friendships and alien invasions. After completing a residency at the Australian Tapestry Workshop last year, and currently showing at the Workshop’s AIR17 exhibition, O’Brien is now embarking on a solo exhibition of his houses.

Titled Mayor of the Town and opening soon, the exhibition sees O’Brien build, write, mold and stitch his own borough, inspired by other people’s stories and houses. Within these dwellings a myriad of domestic affairs and playful squabbles take place; spider outbreaks, exploding hot water systems and creaky weatherboard dwellings. O’Brien almost always embeds himself into these stories, both creating and experiencing the narratives with his friends and fictional characters. When asked about his desire to create a mini-city O’Brien says, “I want to be mayor of the town. I’m trying to create houses and a city with stories of me and my friends.”

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Chris O’Brien sewing his soft sculpture house. Photo by Kate Longley.


The exhibition builds upon O’Brien’s recent residency at the Australian Tapestry Workshop where he honed his house-making craft. “I enjoyed it and I liked having my own table,” says Chris. “And visiting the tower that was part of the building.”

Chris O'Brien at the opening of AIR17. Courtesy the Australian Tapestry Workshop. Photography by Tim O'Connor.

Chris O’Brien at the opening of AIR17. Courtesy the Australian Tapestry Workshop. Photography by Tim O’Connor.


The end result was a soft sculpture of the Australian Tapestry Workshop building. Prior to this, O’Brien’s bulging soft sculpture constructions had been centered around his greatly loved cactus gang.

Exhibition image of AIR17. Courtesy the Australian Tapestry Workshop. Photography by Tim O'Connor.

Exhibition image of AIR17. Courtesy the Australian Tapestry Workshop. Photography by Tim O’Connor.


While O’Brien’s practice also spans painting, printmaking and ceramic sculptures, it’s the figure of the decrepit or languid house that infiltrates much of his imagery. “I like the look of the old houses,” explains the artist. “I pick them out from the internet and sometimes from real life. There was one old house nearby that was rundown, so I made a cardboard house of it and wrote a story about what happened to the people who lived there.” And what happened to them? “They died,” replies O’Brien.

Alongside his soft sculpture, the artist publishes graphic stories and he recently released two new zines, Story Name is Chris and Sarah Pendergast and Chris and Millie at 98, which tell the stories of a duplex homes, providing narratives of mundane and supernatural happenings in a domestic setting.

Chris O'Brien, Story Name Is Chris and Sarah Pendergast, 20 x 14.5 x 0.5 cm. Limited edition of 20.

Chris O’Brien, Story Name Is Chris and Sarah Pendergast, 20 x 14.5 x 0.5 cm. Limited edition of 20.


These zines build upon a pervasive feature of O’Brien’s stories; the artist continuously combines his life, and the lives of his friends, with characters and situations from popular culture narratives. What occurs is a humourous blend between television such as Blue Heelers or Neighbours, alongside O’Brien’s imagination and his lived experience. If you comment upon how O’Brien’s narratives and stories often end up being about friendships and romantic struggles, not dissimilar to soap operas, O’Brien answers, “Well, that’s what always happens in these kinds of shows. My stories are just what happens to people.”