Games are often used as metaphors for life. Whether recreation or competition, they condition players to enjoy the buzz and endure the struggle, to brave the painful upset of loss and savor the short-lived exhilaration of winning. Captivated by this rise and fall, Brooklyn-based artist Luke O’Halloran is interested in the sport and symbols of risk, chance, and possibility. From infinitely spinning slot machines to flurries of playing cards thrown into the air, his work often freezes fleeting moments in a blur of movement. But there are quieter examples too. Featured here, O’Halloran’s pencil-drawn portraits show scenes of friends building houses of cards, each filled with a sense of mounting tension that signifies the fragility of life.


“It is impossible to pose them, and I don’t interrupt or ask for a pause,” O’Halloran explains. He doesn’t stage the scenes either. Instead, he spreads a deck of cards out on a table and lets the sitter begin building while he snaps reference photos. In these tableaux, the subjects seem suspended in trance-like superposition, imagining a range of possibilities as they delicately select placements. Focus and finesse are key, and commitment to each moment must be unwavering, or the cards will fall. Once translated into drawings, the resulting portraits are gracefully understated. Each balances an economy of careful lines with tight details scrupulously inscribed through spare hatch marks, exacting the defining features and gestures of each participant with a pared-down complexity.



“Liz & Kenny building a house of cards” (2022).


“Max building a house of cards” (2022).


“Jess building a house of cards” (2022).


“Greg building a house of cards” (2022).


“Kellian building a house of cards” (2022).


“Sam building a house of cards” (2022).


“Liz building a house of cards” (2022).




The graphic symbols of playing cards suggest a stratified society, the values accorded to suit, number, and ranked nobility servicing the goal of domination in competitive gameplay. But in the act of building a house, each card is reduced to its paper materiality, and the player becomes one’s own opponent in a loser’s game that is both tantalizing and satisfying. While the serenity of a Sunday pastime pervades the work, so does the tempered dread of expectation. Nothing lasts forever, and yet, in the moment, we must pretend it does. “The house is falling apart,” O’Halloran quips. With extreme wealth disparity and climate change in our midst, his themes are wide-reaching in their resonance. His drawings might even register as commentary on our war-waging, wall-building, dog-eat-dog world, leaving us wondering, if perhaps, like a house of cards, everything could somehow be dismantled and reconstructed until the full deck is being put to better use — how gratifying!






Luke O’Halloran photographed in Herbert Von King Park, Brooklyn, New York. May 2022.




This story was printed in GAYLETTER Issue 16, get a copy here.