Justin Liam O’Brien’s Liberating Artistry

A Breakthrough in Painting: The Evolving Practice of Justin Liam O’Brien


As America grapples with the chaos and division that characterized 2020, moments of clarity and breakthrough have emerged. One such breakthrough is evident in the work of painter Justin Liam O’Brien. After leaving his day job in 3D modeling, O’Brien dedicated himself to his craft, resulting in a stunning new direction showcased in his recent exhibition, “Dammed By the Rainbow,” at GNYP Gallery in Berlin. With an upcoming fall exhibition at Richard Heller Gallery in Los Angeles, O’Brien’s intimate works on Queer identity, isolation, sadness, and humor have continued to evolve, reflecting his growth and experience as an artist.

From Digital Art to Painting

O’Brien’s journey as an artist began with his studies in digital art at Pratt, where he developed skills in 3D animation and video game design. Interestingly, the influence of his background in 3D modeling can still be seen in his paintings characterized by simplified, blobby, and 3D model-like figures. After working in a real estate company creating 3D models, O’Brien made the decision to fully commit to painting. This career shift allowed him to embark on a two-month exploration of full-time painting in his studio, bringing him immense happiness and fulfillment.

Discovering a New Voice

One striking aspect of O’Brien’s recent work is the loosening of his style and the emergence of his original voice. As he explores new visual languages and techniques, he surprises himself with the paintings he creates, bringing to life images that were previously hidden in his mind. This process of discovery and self-expression leads to deeper connections between his emotional experiences and the narratives within his paintings.

An Artistic Upbringing

Growing up, O’Brien was encouraged to express himself artistically, though his exposure to the fine arts came later in college. His early interest in modding video games, drawing concept art, and graphic novel-style illustrations honed his artistic skills and provided a foundation for his later work as a painter. The ability to create scenes, characters, and perspectives on-demand proved valuable, and O’Brien carried these skills into his adulthood, eventually merging them with his experiences as a Queer person and his quest for self-expression through painting.

The Power of Video Games and Escapism

Video games played a significant role in O’Brien’s artistic journey, providing both visual stimulation and an escape from a hostile environment. Growing up in a homophobic community, video games and online communities offered him a refuge and a sense of belonging. O’Brien recognizes the Queer counterculture that exists within the world of video games and the internet, which resonated deeply with his identity. While video games initially appealed to him as a means of escape, they also revealed a potential future career path that combined his artistic talents with his love for painting.

Painting as Free Expression

Unlike the structured nature of video games, painting provides O’Brien with the freedom to express himself authentically. He finds storytelling through single images to be his artistic strength, using figure placement and mood to convey narratives within his work. This ability to distill emotions into a single image is something that O’Brien continues to hone, evolving as a painter by exploring different techniques and narratives in his solo exhibitions. As his confidence grows, he allows the paintings to guide him, embracing experimentation and finding comfort in the artistic process.

Loneliness and Human Connection

One recurring theme in O’Brien’s paintings is the feeling of loneliness amidst crowds, an internalized experience that he explores through his art. Loneliness, for him, is not a momentary feeling but a chronic and complex condition. Through painting, O’Brien grapples with the complexity of emotions that are often difficult to articulate verbally. By visually representing these feelings, he invites viewers to connect with their own experiences of loneliness, rejection, lust, or anger. The ability to convey these emotions through art is a testament to O’Brien’s desire to create images that speak when words fail.

The Influence of New York City

Living in New York City, O’Brien is aware of its historical significance in the art world. He draws inspiration from artists like Peter Hujar, David Wojnarowicz, and Kiki Smith, who navigated the city’s vibrant art scene and left a lasting impact on subsequent generations. However, the current climate of the city, compounded by the challenges of 2020, has raised concerns about its ability to maintain its artistic character. Despite the uncertainties, O’Brien remains connected to the city’s artistic heritage and hopes to continue contributing to its rich cultural tapestry.

The Influence of David Wojnarowicz

O’Brien’s most significant artistic influence is David Wojnarowicz, a multidisciplinary artist who defied categorization. Wojnarowicz’s ability to seamlessly navigate various mediums, including painting, writing, and photography, resonates deeply with O’Brien. In Wojnarowicz’s memoir, “Close to the Knives,” O’Brien found a sense of belonging and a connection to Queer history and culture. Wojnarowicz’s versatility motivates O’Brien to explore new artistic avenues in the future, ultimately avoiding artistic stagnation.

A Breakthrough in Europe

O’Brien’s recent exhibition in Germany received enthusiastic support and recognition. The body of work showcased in Berlin benefited from O’Brien’s decision to focus full-time on painting. With extensive hours dedicated to his craft, he was able to fully realize his ideas and experiment with elements like light, patterns, and spatial arrangements. The strong response from German audiences underscores the universal appeal of O’Brien’s work, transcending geographical boundaries and earning him recognition as an artist with a unique and diverse creative vision.

Looking Ahead

As O’Brien eagerly awaits the engine of creativity to revitalize, his upcoming solo exhibition at Richard Heller Gallery promises to be another milestone in his artistic journey. With the freedom and confidence to fully explore his ideas, he is excited about the possibilities that lie ahead. O’Brien’s dedication to pushing the boundaries of his art and avoiding creative constraints leaves us intrigued and eagerly anticipating his next body of work.


Justin Liam O’Brien’s artistic evolution is a testament to the power of self-expression and the transformative potential of embracing one’s true artistic voice. Through his journey from digital art to painting, O’Brien has discovered a profound connection between his personal experiences and the narratives conveyed in his work. As he continues to explore new techniques, themes, and artistic avenues, we have no doubt that O’Brien’s future contributions to the art world will be exceptional, thought-provoking, and emotionally resonant.


1. What inspired Justin Liam O’Brien’s transition from digital art to painting?

The transition from digital art to painting was motivated by O’Brien’s desire for more freedom and self-expression in his art. While he found success in the world of 3D modeling, painting offered him a medium through which he could convey his emotions and explore deeper themes that resonated with his personal experiences.

2. How has O’Brien’s background in video games influenced his painting style?

O’Brien’s background in video games is evident in his simplified, blobby, and 3D model-like figures. The visual language of video games has seeped into his paintings, creating a unique aesthetic that sets his work apart. This blending of artistic influences allows O’Brien to communicate narratives and emotions in a distinct and captivating way.

3. What is the overarching theme in O’Brien’s recent exhibitions?

O’Brien’s recent exhibitions delve into themes of Queer identity, isolation, sadness, and humor. His paintings explore the complex emotions of loneliness and the desire for connection, crafting narratives that resonate with viewers on a deep and personal level. Through his work, O’Brien seeks to shed light on the human experience and foster a sense of understanding and empathy.

4. How does O’Brien approach storytelling in his paintings?

While O’Brien acknowledges his strength in capturing narratives within a single image, he also experiments with storytelling through series of paintings. By allowing the paintings to guide him and evolve during the creative process, O’Brien creates cohesive narratives across multiple artworks, weaving together themes and emotions to tell a larger story.

5. What can we expect from Justin Liam O’Brien in the future?

With an upcoming solo exhibition at Richard Heller Gallery, O’Brien continues to push the boundaries of his art and explore new avenues for self-expression. His dedication to experimentation and refusal to be confined by a single artistic style or medium promises continued growth and evolution in his work. We can anticipate thought-provoking and emotionally resonant art from O’Brien as he explores new themes and expands his creative horizons.