Seen but safe: Chris O’Brien and the Domestic

Chris O’Brien, Chris in the chair, he’s asleep, 2019, calico; foam; stuffing; wire; wool, 22 x 16.5 x 20 cm


This week, Arts Project Australia Gallery Technician Margaret McIntosh spoke with studio artist Chris O’Brien about Chris in the chair, he’s asleep (2019), reflecting on the work’s relationship to his practice at large.

Chris O’Brien is a multi-disciplinary artist who works in painting, printmaking, artist zines, video, and sculpture. He has been a studio artist at Arts Project Australia since 2002, and his work is exhibited extensively and held in private collections throughout Australia and overseas.

O’Brien’s work often focusses on domestic dwellings – houses, streetscapes, building interiors – and playfully straddles the line between memoir and fiction. Within his domestic spheres, he is a repetitive character – this personified, plural motif affectionally termed ‘the Chrises’ – interacting with figures from his everyday life.

Chris in the chair, he’s asleep reveals a photographic image of Chris on a soft sculpture, the figure sitting on a fabric brown armchair with multi-colour details. Despite the title, he doesn’t appear asleep as ‘the Chris’ makes eye contact with the viewer, his expression neutral while suggestive of his characteristic humour. Compared to his larger-scaled artworks and complex-narrative zines and films, this work offers a more minutely detailed insight into his personal fascination and connection with home.

“It’s me watching Rush on the TV,” says Chris. When asked if the armchair is one from his home, he bemuses, “Sort of,” reflecting that while he incorporates elements of his life into his works, distinctions between fact and fiction remain ambiguous.

Chris O’Brien, Under Pressure Opening Arts Project Australia, February 2018

Nonetheless, this paradox is not to decrease his presence in his work, but rather accentuate it. He possesses strong ownership over his style, “They are just my idea, and I like doing it.”

Chris explains the sculpture was created with his photo ironed onto fabric and the body and armchair structured with interior cotton wool and wire. On his choice of outfit, Chris comments, “I like the pink!” Margaret asks, “Why do you often choose loud and flamboyant colours for your soft sculptures?” Chris responds, “So people can see me.” 

The work tangibly embodies Chris’ internal world at this present time. While not attending Arts Project Australia due to COVID-19, he has been spending time in his armchair.  “I have been making art in front of the telly and trying not to cut myself,” he laughs. “It’s nice and comfortable.”

Margaret enquires, “So the work is about being seen but also about being comfortable?”

“Yeah,” says Chris, summarising, “When I can hear strange things outside, it’s where I go to sleep like an old Grandpa and smell like old mothballs.”  

Browse a selection of O’Brien’s work and watch Louis Le Vaillant, Director of The Johnston Collection, talk about the narratives and adventures threaded in O’Brien below. 

Interview by Margaret McIntosh, Gallery Technician; article edited and written by Tahney Fosdike, Marketing & Communications Coordinator 

Love from the Studio is a series of interviews and articles bringing you behind the scenes of Arts Project Australia.