Portrait of a boy in a red jacket
oil on board
41 x 33 cm
"Justin O’Brien was certainly an anomaly in 20th century Australian art. This has less to do with his choice of religious subject matter or the stylistic mannerism which he adopted, but is more of a comment on his preoccupation with the search for the spiritual dimension within the context of figurative art. Parallels may be drawn with an artist like Balthus, with whom he shared the sense of monumental dignity and a sense of lyricism, but whereas Balthus sought within his uncanny settings to exploit psychological and specifically sexual tensions, in O’Brien’s works, the pictorial tensions are exploited to explore a spiritual dimension. In the past, when we were primarily preoccupied with a linear construct of modernism in 20th century Australian art, O’Brien’s art seemed as a beautifully executed eccentric irrelevancy. Now that we have admitted a pluralism into our understanding of artistic developments, O’Brien’s art needs to be re-evaluated as the work of one of the most significant Australian artists of his time, one who sought to explore the spiritual dimension without abandoning the figurative form. In the present period when we are rapid re-considering of our traditions of art, Justin O’Brien is increasingly recognised as one of the giants in Australian art of the post-war period."
Professor Sasha Grishin, AM, FAHA
Australian National University, Canberra
extract from 2006 exhibition catalogue