Eva O'Leary - Happy Valley
Winner Outset | Unseen Exhibition Fund
1 March 2019 - 28 April 2019

Press Release | Amsterdam, February 2019

Happy Valley is the nickname for the town State College in Pennsylvania (US), the hometown of American-Irish artist Eva O’Leary (b. 1989). On the surface, it appears to be a tranquil and quiet place; the home of Penn State University and its popular football team, The Penn State Nittany Lions. It is a football town that was once an icon of white, middle class Americana, but is now best known for an international sex scandal. The artist left Happy Valley at the age of 18, but the place has continued to haunt her work since. At first sight, this work seems to be a crisp and colorful portrait of an American town and its inhabitants. However, the almost violent acuity of the images simultaneously evokes a deep sense of unease. 

In O’Leary’s Happy Valley no-one ever seems to age. The faces of its inhabitants appear in porcelain masks, suspended in eternal youthfulness. Their portraits are anonymous and archetypical, what lies behind the façade (Anger? Sadness? Repressed violence?)remains trapped in the frame. Each image presents a moment of everlasting suspension that is at once seductive and terrifying. The charade goes awry once we realize that beneath the exterior not everything is what it seems.

The work comments on the artist’s personal experience of growing up in a constructed and transient place, where the population rejuvenates with the beginning of every college term, and the cycle starts anew. Adolescent girls and boys sense the pressure to conform to ideas of masculinity, femininity and unattainable beauty standards. Suffocating gender-normativity is elaborately reiterated via social media channels and in the culture around them. Groomed, airbrushed and saturated, these photographs foster a collective (almost ritualistic) make-belief the artist calls ‘American mythology’. The seductive visual language of O’Leary references that of slick social media feeds and commercial advertisements. However, her use of a large-format camera results in images with an unforgiving level of detail, revealing subtle flaws and nigh-imperceptible cracks in the façade.

Foam 3h: Eva O'Leary
Foam 3h: Eva O'Leary
Foam 3h: Eva O'Leary
Foam 3h: Eva O'Leary

Eva O’Leary (1989, Chicago) received a BFA from California College of the Arts in 2012,
and an MFA from the Yale School of Art in 2016. She was named a Foam Talent in 2014, and was the recipient of the Vontobel Contemporary Photography Prize in 2017. Her work has been exhibited in numerous solo and group exhibitions, including the Serpentine Gallery (London), l'Atelier Néerlandais (Paris), Christophe Guye Gallery (Zurich), Benaki Museum (Athens), and Petzel Gallery (New York). Her work has been published in Foam Magazine, ArtForum, Aperture, 1000 Words, ZEIT Magazin, The New Yorker and The New York Times. The artist lives and works between New York and Central Pennsylvania.

During Unseen Amsterdam 2018 Eva O’Leary was selected for the Outset | Unseen Exhibition Fund by an international curatorial committee. Her exhibition at Foam is the result.

This exhibition is made possible with support from the Van Bijlevelt Foundation, Kleurgamma Fine-Art Photolab and Outset Netherlands.


Foam is supported by the BankGiro Lottery, De Brauw Blackstone Westbroek, Foam Members, City of Amsterdam, Olympus and the VandenEnde Foundation.


The work Happy Valley by Eva O'Leary can be seen from 1 March - 28 April 2019 at Foam. Open daily 10am - 6pm, Thurs/Fri 10am - 9pm.


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