David O’Brien’s “My Pet Doppelganger”

Digital replicas of flying and furtive portraits of friends moving through time and space populate David O’Brien’s solo photography show My Pet Doppelganger at the Richard Heller Gallery.

David O’Brien | Hey Let’s Get Together and Figure this Thing Out (DETAIL), 2012, 48 x 66 inches. Photo Courtesy Ellen C. Caldwell

From afar, many of O’Brien’s photographs look like solar systems – the swirling nature of the spirographed patterns of people look distinctly like stars of the Milky Way.  Staring at the paintings for even a few moments, one might recall sitting in a planetarium or staring up at a desert sky. - Ellen C. Caldwell, Los Angeles Contributor

Installation view of backroom at Richard Heller Gallery. Photo Courtesy Ellen C. Caldwell

David O’Brien | Protein, 2012, 48 x 72 inches. Courtesy Richard Heller Gallery

But up close, limbs, faces, and bodies reveal that the photos are comprised of digital copies of a cacophony of floating people, repeated unquantifiably throughout the photographic prints. As they overlap and intertwine, O’Brien’s cast of photographed friends creates an expansive and complicated solar system social network.

David O’Brien | Protein – DETAIL. Photo Courtesy Ellen C. Caldwell

And it is actually much more complex than this.  O’Brien started this challenging and seemingly undoable project with the goal of photographing everyone he knows, asking visiting friends to his studio or packing up and traveling to them.  In some ways, the travel required and the energy expended just to photograph all of these portraits is mimicked in the traveling patterns, movement, and momentum captured in his prints.  But more so, his works start to look like a photographic rendering of our online interweb of friends.  There is something about six degrees of separation and Kevin Bacon going on here, but I am still wrapping my head around that.  To this end, the press release challenges you to see if you know anyone in this expanse of portraits, so I’ve included some details.

David O’Brien | Friendship Drawing wtfWTFwtf, 2012, 40 x 48 inches. Photo Courtesy Ellen C. Caldwell

The gallery’s press release states, “Each one of us now lives with multiple doppelgangers; shadows of ourselves in the form of accounts, profiles, preferences, feeds, posts and photo streams. Who are all of these creatures? Are they friends, pets, monsters? To what degree can we even control them? What sort of life do they lead when we’re not looking?” With our internet presence and profiles exponentially increasing, O’Brien’s project is a way of photographically rendering various random and tangential diagrams of what our repeated personas and doppelgangers might look like and interact in internet space.  Think about how many profiles are out there for each of us…including even unborn babies, courtesy of their overzealous parents (see Steven Leckart’s recent discussion and coining of the term “oversharenting” in the Wall Street Journal.)

David O’Brien | Friendship Drawing #V2, 2012, 48 x 72 inches. Courtesy Richard Heller Gallery

But, in many ways, O’Brien’s prints also felt like a visual summation of my thoughts about cloud technology and the internet overall: like all of our information and all of our outward selves – personal, private, and public combined – are somewhere out there in the vast expanse of the universe, just floating and interacting, accessible and inaccessible all at once.  (Yes, clearly I am more of a technophobe than technophile, in that I have a very surface understanding of how the internet works and where my information is stored.)  But something about the visual rendering of this taking place out in space sums up my misunderstood vision perfectly.

Installation view at Richard Heller Gallery. Photo Courtesy Ellen C. Caldwell

O’Brien’s work is fun and challenging, given the multiplicity of meanings going on within.  Some portraits look as if his friends are floating in peace, while others are flying in fright. Some are so dense with people that you cannot tell what’s going on, and that was usually the moment for me in which they simply turned to stars.

David O’Brien | Stroke, 2012, 48 x 40 inches. Courtesy Richard Heller Gallery

David O’Brien | Stroke (DETAIL), 2012, 48 x 40 inches. Photo Courtesy Ellen C. Caldwell

David O’Brien | In the Grass, 2012, 30 x 40 inches. Photo Courtesy Ellen C. Caldwell

Some of the photographs with the white backgrounds appeared much brighter, creating more structural forms and emphasizing the microscopic details of the portraits. These also took on more complex shapes, looking architectural at times, or like patterned Missoni fabric at others. One outlier featured what looked to be an inverted image with muted and eerie x-ray-like colors.  People were scattered everywhere and it was the only print I saw that featured some sort of background, presumably grass (as the title “In the Grass” suggests, but resembling a blurry magnified close-up of human hair).  This piece took a darker tone in look and feel, and I wondered if future projects were heading in that direction.

David O’Brien | Merge, 2012, 48 x 72 inches. Courtesy Richard Heller Gallery

Regardless, something about O’Brien’s menagerie of flying people felt special – like we are all worry dolls, tiny dancers, and acrobats, freefalling in one exquisitely intricate plane.  Conceptual, inquisitive, and vast in both scope and meaning, My Pet Doppelganger is as fun to contemplate as it is to view.


David O’Brien’s solo photography show My Pet Doppelganger is at the Richard Heller Gallery until June 16th.  O’Brien’s work has been exhibited in solo shows in internationally and throughout the U.S.

Ellen C. Caldwell is an LA-based art historian, editor, and writer.

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