September 17, 2008

John O'Connor: Recording small events, missteps, and changes of direction over time

In The Village Voice RC Baker reports that John O'Connor uses 'haphazard research' and personal obsession (body weight, lottery numbers, weather reports) as inspiration for his drawings, some of which are almost seven feet high. "This approach lends his charts and graphs a delectably organic feel, as layers of silky black graphite combine with bold colored-pencil patterns for an almost painterly heft. 'A Good Idea' (2008) resembles a pollen spore armored with letters and numbers, a hybrid of data and nature. The blend of odd shapes and enigmatic information draws you in, slowing down your mind so that your eye can marvel at the lush density of the images."

In The Brooklyn Rail, painter Eve Aschheim talked with O’Connor in his Queens apartment/studio about his life and work. Here's an excerpt.
Rail:
What was the evolution of your use of chance, abstraction and conceptual processes?
O’Connor:
In high school I was doing pen and ink drawings with lots of detail, very labor intensive. They could take a year to make. In college I saw my first abstract painting in an art history class. I didn’t know what abstract painting was, and didn’t understand how or why someone would make something like that. I started making my own paintings to figure out what abstraction was about. I was excited by it because it was unlike anything that I’d seen.

Rail: What college was that?
O’Connor:
Westfield State College, a small state school where I grew up, in Massachusetts. I graduated from there in ’95. For a few years after, I played drums in a band. I tried to make art, but I didn’t know what to do and had run out of ideas—my work was really static. I felt isolated there, so I went to The Vermont Studio Center in ’97. It was the first time I met real artists working for a living and I also started to look at different types of art. In Vermont I was painting abstractly—textured simple shapes—with many paint layers.

There was one night in The Studio Center, when I painted this red square, kind of rounded like a TV screen. It was awful, I thought, “What was the point of making this thing?” It was a shape that I had no real connection to. I had been looking at stuff… I love diagrams and things that look casual and unintentionally interesting, like indecipherable notes, scrawls that came from somewhere that wasn’t an art place. So, I covered the red square with white paint and I walked over to the gas station that’s about fifteen minutes away.

Rail: Sure, I know that place.
O’Connor:
I bought a big bag of chips, a huge coke and thought “This is it, I don’t know what to do, I can’t do anything that’s my own.” I felt like if I were an alcoholic I’d be drinking, but I came back and ate the bag of chips, drank the coke, and thought “Oh man, I gotta get outta here.”

[both laughing]

O’Connor: So I thought before I left I should just try to draw a little something on this piece. The paint had dried, but not completely, because I’d only been gone a little while, so it had a film. I drew this weird little circular squiggly thing and it tore through some of the paint and showed a little bit of the underpainting, but it also drew on top. It was in between a diagram and something you just draw. It was really simple and quick; it took half a minute. I wasn’t really thinking about it. I tricked myself by doing this thing and I loved it. I thought, “this is it!” It looked almost ghost-like. You couldn’t really tell what the form was; it didn’t really have a defined shape. I loved that painting. So I spent the rest of my time in Vermont trying to figure out how to recreate that moment.

I calculated how long it took me to walk to the store and eat the chips. I thought, “Okay if I use the same paint and do the same thing, can I make this same effect happen again?” I set everything up in the studio and walked out to the store and did the same thing. I tried, but I couldn’t get it right; the conditions weren’t perfect. When I went back to Massachusetts I did the same thing. I would set my alarm and get up in the middle of the night to do it again. I was obsessed with making this ridiculous shape. It was my attempt to get back to that moment to figure out exactly it happened so spontaneously—it was impossible, but that’s my personality. I eventually went to Pratt graduate school and saw a book of prints by John Cage, and thought “Wow, these compositions!”—the way they looked—unbalanced and that random color —was something I wanted to get in my own work

"John J. O'Connor: Flannel Tongue," Pierogi, Brooklyn, NY. Through October 6.

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