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Child’s play: Delusions of ‘Pencil Pusher’ settle outside nostalgia 

I’ve always been a bit suspicious of adults meddling with the culture of children. At the age of six or seven, the guiding forces are the kids two and three years ahead in class. They are the ones who pass on the game rules and strategies for contesting power on the playground; adults are just weird. For the most part, I still think so. Ian O’Brien’s exhibit Pencil Pusher seems an attempt to recapture memories of another world. It’s that, but, not as it may seem, simply nostalgia for childhood.

The many pencils that make up the show are the small store-bought variety and much larger sculptural versions — huge in the tiny Cactus Bra gallery. That they totally encompass the space seems appropriate, for this is a room of memory that must be filled or forgotten. Bound into toy catapults and crossbows, the pencil siege weapons contest territory of the sort held by children kept home during sick days or inside from the rain. The battle is child-like, but the fanaticism of the scene recalls the Pere Ubu stories of Alfred Jarry, tales of the artist as tyrant that influenced the early avant-garde of 20th-century art. Jarry conflated his everyday persona with that of the dictator Ubu Roi, breaking the narrative edges that usually keep us safely on one side or the other of fiction.

O’Brien seems to occupy a similar space, being both the artist and sometimes art teacher Ian M. O’Brien and Mayor Ian O’Brien of the Town of Grip River.

The show at Cactus Bra is the third such by O’Brien. Masquerading as art, it is a postcard from a realm where O’Brien is lord and master. The exhibit purports to be perhaps artifacts or museum mockups explaining one of the many stories of Grip River, a place that lives in O’Brien but can also be visited online at Though incomplete, like many small-town websites, it has a business directory and other offerings for trade and tourism, smacking of civic pride. To heighten his dual (triple?) identity, Grip River’s O’Brien is both Mayor Ian O’Brien and a contender to office, his opponent Mat O’Brien. Of course, all the O’Briens share the same smiling face.

If Grip River is installation and performance art, its sincerity is either striking or irritating. In the telling of a story, the narrator is removed, safe — even when using the first-person voice. Performance art at its best breaks down this division between story and voice, between character and person. O’Brien’s work goes in reverse, turning the person into a character, a realm often shared by psychosis and delusion, and of course — the absurd.

So, is this delusion or fraud? It hardly makes a difference. That art may depict a world yet to be part of the world is perplexing indeed.


Pencil Pusher


By appointment only

Cactus Bra

106C Blue Star

(210) 226-6688

Through Mar 20

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