Few 11-year-olds spend their allowance money maintaining a storage unit. But when John Reilly's father gave him one day to purge his room of the mountains of odd kitsch and ephemera he'd dragged home from random Atlanta, Ga. alleyways, Reilly politely refused. He loaded his treasures into his mom's station wagon and slid a pile of dollar bills across the Public Storage counter. His fascination with discarded Modernist design and broken mechanical equipment had only just begun.
Reilly spent his high school years in Atlanta, apprenticing with an array of different craftsmen: painters, electricians, woodworkers, plaster workers and metalworkers. He helped restore old downtown buildings, peeling back cracked layers of paint to relish in the musty history concealed beneath. Reilly was obsessed with what secrets were held in the cast-off clutter of the past.
"I learned all these manual skills, which you have to know if you're going to do any applied arts," Reilly explains. "You can't skip those steps. You have to sand a thousand miles of plaster and sheetrock, clean a million brushes, and have your hands cracked. You have to do the apprenticeship."
These manual skills helped Reilly land a job in theater lighting and stage design after college. He synthesized his practical artistry with a burgeoning knowledge of lighting technique and color composition. He also began experimenting in graphic design on one of the earliest computer drawing programs. Reilly recalls the exact moment he became fascinated with the possibilities that graphic design offered.
"I pulled out this clip art of a little pine branch and then I pulled out a thought balloon and it landed right above it. I thought instantly, 'Here's this little branch that's thinking. It has this thought that's completely empty.' And that absurdity really turned me on."
The clean lines and ethereal simplicity of the graphic realm helped him to explore the associations between objects. He became fascinated with the relationship between a bowling ball and a pin or a mousetrap and cheese. By imbuing inanimate items with human frailties, Reilly explored the illicit lives of the everyday. Soon, Reilly decided that his ideas had outgrown the computer screen.
"I thought, 'anybody can do this: take a computer program, fool around, and come up with clever ideas.' But suppose you have this little branch, thinking this thought, and it's the size of a side of a building. Blow it up to a proportion where people go, 'well that must mean something, because it's gigantic.'"
And that's precisely what Reilly has done. His garage is peppered with a few massive 5-foot by 7-foot paintings tipped against each wall. Rolls of plastic sheeting and Costco sized bottles of studio set paints litter the corners of his workspace. Reilly's colors are limited to four classic colors—black, white, blue, and yellow—to impose form and continuity throughout his work. For a uniform matte finish he uses deeply saturated theater set paints. Amy Pence-Brown, the associate curator for the Boise Art Museum and guest judge for last year's Idaho Triennial, remembers Reilly's garage studio fondly.
"I immediately walked in and I loved the scent," says Pence-Brown. "The paint had such a strong smell ... The colors were so different from the digital images, which is why it's so great to see work in person."
Apart from color and scale, Reilly imposes other restrictions on his work. His fascination with Modernism and Bauhaus has defined his "less is more" approach to staging and shadow. Reilly typically works with one light source and stages his scenes in a bleak, domestic environment with unadorned walls. His paintings read like a Harold Pinter play: ambiguous characters, turmoil lurking in everyday settings, and ironic twists that emerge through puns and wordplay.
"He makes these little stories, where you don't know what part in the story that you're entering," says Pence-Brown. She chose two of his pieces, Plan B and Target Audience, for last fall's Idaho Triennial. "His palette was so striking to me," recalls Pence-Brown. "And the way that he marks all of his pieces with OXXO. I had no idea what that meant or what they were. It was so interesting to see that [the images] were painted on canvas because they were so graphic."
Reilly's artwork is, without a doubt, meant to be viewed in person. All of his designs are perfected on a computer drawing program before they're ever committed to canvas. He considers the physical canvas an integral part of his finished work.
"I always wanted there to be one copy of every single one of my images that was unique to the canvas and that would be hand-painted by me," says Reilly. "If you look at the actual canvas, you see how much human error there is, and that's what I like. Everything is hand-edged. You can see my pencil marks and where the paints run a little bit because I'm using brushes. The final effect is human, even though it completely exists, originally, digitally."
Reilly employs the moniker, OXXO, as a gender-neutral signature for his work. He hopes this simple stamp will remove any historical associations his name, sex or background might evoke, leaving his viewers with a cleansed palate and untarnished perspective.
"There had to be some sort of neutralizing distance between me, the creator, and a complete stranger. I liked that people would associate this logo with the work versus a person that painted it."
Yet, in an age where digital graphics stream ceaselessly from highway billboards, it seems that Reilly's work walks a tenuous line between commercial and high art. Like any successful corporation, he has cultivated a brand strategy and an aesthetic—yet his designs occupy space in white-washed, temperature-controlled museums and not on the discarded packaging of Vans shoes. And although Reilly can't explain why our culture values this surface over others, he'll continue to painstakingly paint each of his creations in hopes that, just maybe, they'll outlast the digital age.
"I like that if I'm going to leave anything behind—my hard drives can be erased, paper burns—but somewhere out in the world is an original canvas of every single one of these images."