Monumental: The Reimagined World of Kevin O’Callaghan

Kevin O’Callaghan is a character, to say the least. After graduating from the School of Visual Arts with a degree in advertising in 1982, he showed up to his first job interview with a giant Oldenburg-esque sculpture of a portfolio on a trailer hitched to his car. When asked whether he had brought his portfolio with him, O’Callaghan drew the interviewer’s attention out the window and across the street, where he had parked his colossal briefcase. Driving around with a giant portfolio, O’Callaghan became a known oddity in New York City. People magazine even did a two-page spread on him.

After finding his calling, O’Callaghan—usually in collaboration with his 3-D design students at the School of Visual Arts—has gone on to created numerous large-scale sculptures and sculptural projects, both public and commercial. Oftentimes the art is functional and interactive. For example, in one assignment, O’Callaghan had his students adapt discarded Yugo cars into something more useful. Jude Dominique made his car into a shower, covering the outside with blue tiles, putting a towel rack on the bumper, turning the side mirror into a toothbrush holder, and cutting a hole through the roof to make room for a working shower. As O’Callaghan remembers, “Every day, Jude Dominique would take a shower in his car, and soon he became a Yugo celebrity. There was a sign that read ‘Jude will shower at 8:30 a.m.’ and people would come and talk with him about the car as he washed.” O’Callaghan’s most honorable quality is that he not only gives his students credit where it’s due, but he also remembers in great detail who did which project and even a few anecdotes about the process. He clearly sees his role as an artist as collaborative rather than self-interested—an attitude that distinguishes him from artists like Dale Chihuly, Jeff Koons, and Damien Hirst, who reply on other people’s skills without acknowledging them.

The nature of O’Callaghan’s projects is also commendable. He and his students frequently re-use and transform throw-away, broken, and useless objects. Apart from the Yugos, he has also employed typewriters, phone booths, M16 assault rifles, gas masks, and my personal favorite, a monster truck, which became a living room-type space. The most amazing part of the monster truck project was student Joseph Pastor’s fully functional washer/dryer made from the truck’s roof. As acts of creative recycling, these projects fall into the category of green sculpture. Furthermore, the materials have their own inherent meaning, whether it be technology and nostalgia (phone booths, Yugos, and typewriters), the environment and machismo (the monster truck), or war and violence (M16s and gas masks). The use of pop-culture references and display in public venues allows O’Callaghan to reach a wider audience.

This brings me to the one flaw in all of these projects. They lack any relevance to the sites in which they are displayed. Often they tour train stations, where they are set up in a large hall with some sort of canvas backdrop behind each one, setting it in its “natural environment.” (For example, the backdrop behind a Yugo-turned-giant-accordion is an old photograph of accordion players.) Another problem with these works is that they are all fairly safe. Although they are interesting to look at, they are not the kind of works that inspire you to go home and ponder their meaning—with the possible exception of the M16s and gas masks. O’Callaghan’s more commercial projects, done for MTV, AMC, and Twisted Sister, have a complete lack of depth, and a couple are downright tasteless—for example, the MTV Latin music award designed as a shrine housing a votive candle.

In an attempt to cover as much of O’Callaghan’s work as possible, Monumental gives each individual project a short introduction by art writer/editor Deborah Hussey, followed by a series of images captioned by O’Callaghan. The captions are so descriptive and well written that I wonder whether the introductory paragraphs are needed at all. On an editorial note, there are a disproportionate number of typos for such a small amount of text. All in all, though, Monumental succeeds in presenting a large portion of O’Callaghan’s projects, his captions are informative and intriguing, an introduction written by one of his former students is illuminating, and the number and quality of images are great. If nothing else, Monumental is a great book to flip through and show your friends.

—Elena Goukassian

Book Description
Monumental: The Reimagined World of Kevin O’Callaghan
by Deborah Hussey
New York: Abrams, 2010
240 pages, 300 full-color illustrations, $40
ISBN: 978-0-8109-8953-5

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