Press Releases

Date of Release: 
Thursday, August 16, 2018
Contact Info: 

Erika Monroe-Kane, Director of Communications
608.257.0158 x 237 or

William J. O'Brien: Reliquary (Media Alert)

MMoCA Opening Friday, August 17 • 6–9 PM

MADISON, WI—This Friday, August 17, the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (MMoCA) celebrates the opening of William J. O’Brien: Reliquary. This immersive exhibition by Chicago-based artist William J. O’Brien presents a mixed-media installation in the museum’s State Street Gallery, the centerpiece of which is a large, hand-painted tent-like structure. This is complemented by a grouping of seven-foot-tall ceramic sculptures and a series of two-dimensional works on view in the lobby.

Guests to the MMoCA Opening reception will among the first to explore the exhibition with its idiosyncratic and exuberant forms. At 6:30 pm, the artist will give a lecture addressing recent works and the exhibition. Guests will be treated to music from Venus in Furs and Saint Saunter, hors d’oeuvres from Fresco, and a cash bar. Free for MMoCA members / $10 for non-members. Seating capacity in the lecture hall is limited.



On view from August 18 through November 11, 2018, the exhibition showcases the artist’s ability to combine disparate mediums—from heavily textured ceramic and bronze vessels to felt textiles and painted muslin—into a visually arresting and cohesive installation. A feat of material experimentation, William J. O’Brien: Reliquary also demonstrates the artist’s engagement with previous art movements. For instance, O’Brien covered the surface of his cloth tent with kinetic drawings of stylized eyes, loosely rendered whorls, and densely-packed, gridded patterns. These calligraphic marks echo the intuitive, vernacular mark-making of folk art and Art Brut. The roughly textured surfaces of the ceramic and bronze vessels reveal the frenetic gestures of the artist’s touch, hinting at the raw physicality of Expressionism. This exhibition also reflects the artist’s interest in art history and material culture, particularly notions of material hierarchies: O’Brien’s commitment to ceramic and textiles—mediums primarily used to make everyday objects—blurs the boundaries that traditionally separate fine art from functional craft.

The inspiration for this body of work emerged as the artist reflected on public and private acts of remembrance and memorialization and considered art’s ability to express things no longer physically accessible. For instance, the standard forms erected to honor individuals or moments from the past, such as bronze memorials and cemetery statuary, are given meaning by the emotions we project onto them. Similarly, the religious significance of reliquaries is attributed to the holy nature of the object, or relic, they are said to contain. A core element of O’Brien’s practice is exploring if, through the touch of the artist’s hand, the materials alone can evoke an emotive power similar to that bestowed onto reliquaries and other venerated objects and spaces.

O’Brien’s tent offers us a dreamlike refuge: enclosed and intimate, illuminated by the soft glow of stringed lights circling the interior cornice. It is an intimate space within a space, a sacred area of reflection set within the public space of the museum.Inside, the bronze and ceramic objects reveal the intensity of the artist’s touch. In creating each work, O’Brien physically transfers his emotional and psychic states onto the surfaces of his materials. And, although these vessels contain no actual relics, parts of O’Brien’s body are nevertheless imprinted onto the work and his energy imbued into it. A beautifully imagined version of a contemporary shrine, O’Brien’s installation touches on spirituality, human intimacy, and the affective potential of art.

William J. O’Brien received his BA in Studio Art from Loyola University in Chicago, and his MFA in Fiber and Material Studies from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Since 2007 he has had several solo exhibitions at the Shane Campbell Gallery in Chicago and The Marianne Boesky Gallery in New York. In 2014 he had his first major survey exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. He has also had solo exhibitions at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, Overland Park, KS (2012), the Renaissance Society, The University of Chicago, Chicago, IL (2011), and, most recently, at the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft (2017). His work is included in several private and public collections including the Cleveland Clinic, Ohio; Perez Art Museum Miami, Florida; The Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; The Hara Museum of Art, Japan; and the Art Institute of Chicago, amongst others. He is currently an Assistant Professor in Ceramics at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Generous funding for William J. O'Brien: Reliquary has been provided by the Steinhauer Charitable Trust; Ellen Rosner and Paul J. Reckwerdt; Husch Blackwell LLP; Gina and Michael Carter; John Rallis and Mary Lynn Bergman-Rallis; Mark and Judy Bednar; a grant from the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts; and MMoCA Volunteers.


Housed in a soaring, Cesar Pelli-designed building, the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art provides free exhibitions and education programs that engage people in modern and contemporary art. The museum’s four galleries offer changing exhibitions that feature established and emerging artists. The Rooftop Sculpture Garden provides an urban oasis with an incredible view. The museum is open: Tuesday through Thursday, noon–5 pm; Friday, noon–8 pm; Saturday, 10 am–8 pm; Sunday, noon–5 pm; and is closed on Mondays.

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