Bill O'Donnell

(b.1952; resides Chicago, IL)

A house is usually a grounded place, built at a fixed location, and the notion of home traditionally comes along with a sense of security, dependability, and comfort. Rooted in this idea of the home as a haven, Bill O’Donnell’s recent series Elevations comprises photographs of small model houses that the artist holds up in front of the camera in tranquil settings like a deserted beach or a forest dappled with light. The artist approaches the series as an allegorical set of tests, which relate to an existential search for refuge amid the uncertainty of human experience. Visually the images are attempts to reconcile house and landscape—to find a place where one fits the other.

Challenging our perceptions of the real and the artificial, O’Donnell plays with our sense of scale through the positioning of the models and he guides our eyes within each photograph by using a shallow depth of field, which leaves only certain areas in focus. Depicting varied relationships between the respective buildings and their potential surroundings in this manner he suggests different degrees of incongruity and instability. Meanwhile, in many of the images he introduces a note of tension between a stable sense of place and a far-off, unseen destination by drawing our attention to an expansive ocean horizon or a road receding into the distance.

Bill O’Donnell is Assistant Professor of Photography at Illinois State University. He completed an MFA in Photography at the The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (1986) and a BA at the Union Institute (1978.) In 2005 he was selected for an OxBow Artist’s Residency through the School of Art Institute of Chicago, and in past years he has received Illinois Arts Council Fellowships (1991-2, 1998, and 2002) and a National Endowment for the Arts Regional Fellowship (1986). His work is held in the collections of the National Endowment for the Arts Visual Artists Fellowship Archive at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC; Illinois State Museum, Springfield; and Seattle Arts Commission Portable Works Collection.

Past Portfolio

This work is a meditation on domesticity, mortality and the eternal tension between real and ideal.  - Bill O’Donnell

In the Interiors series, Bill O’Donnell continues with an allegory he began to treat in his previous Home series, namely that life is a journey that eventually leads to home. While the pictures of familiar but inaccessible model houses in Home were careful to keep the viewer at a distance, the pictures of Interiors bring the viewer right inside. The spartanly furnished rooms suggest vacancy, and the odd color of light which illuminates them signals something unusual, perhaps even unsettling at work. Taken metaphorically, the walls, doors, hallways, ceilings, and floors have the symbolic weight of passages, beginnings, and endings. Sharp angles in some photographs emphasize space and depth, creating a distance to be traveled, while the flat walls or tight corners of other photographs suggest a dead end.

Past Portfolio

In the Home series, Bill O’Donnell explores the allegory of life as a journey that eventually leads to home. Since the end of journey equates with the end of life, death’s mystery and anxiety haunt these pictures, even as glowing windows invoke home’s promise of comfort. A very limited depth of field reveals only the smallest strip of sharpness in these pictures, a visual representation of the sliver of time that separates past and future, where we are and the hazy impression of where we are going. The houses themselves have the clean lines and uncomplicated shapes of models, each standing alone in a nearly empty field or on a barren hill, both idyllic and isolated. The resulting small, square, black-and-white photographs are stunning in their simplicity and as beautiful as they are eerie.