It's hard to tell if John O'Donnell is serious, and he seems to want it that way. Although known for his outlandish performances and kitschy installations that riff on contemporary art making strategies, in a recent show at The Schumacher Gallery at Westover School, O'Donnell presented a series of small paintings that explored contemporary abstraction. His process involved making small studies comprising paint and found objects like pizza boxes and kids' toys, and using the collage-like objects as reference points for a series of paintings made on burlap panels that he purchased from a local arts and crafts store. In the exhibition, he hung the subjects and the paintings side by side.
Via email I asked O'Donnell, who recently curated a show called "Smart Painting" at Artspace in New Haven, if he was satirizing contemporary artists who work in a Casualist mode. "The presence of satire in my work is an extension of my stylistic inclinations, sometimes predetermined, but often accidental," he responded. "'Accidental' in the same way there are elements beyond an artist's conscious control that determine style. Satire is a symptom of my actions rather than the focus or end. With these paintings I am trying to reveal the vulnerability and dishonesty of attempted mimesis. The paintings are not intended to poke fun, or be satire, but they are quite fun for me to think about and create, and perhaps that floats to the surface."
I thought O'Donnell might be using perceptual painting as a strategy to snarkily explore the widespread dissemination and adoption of fashionable art tropes -- in this case Casualist abstraction. By noting that there’s an “inherent vulnerability and dishonesty of attempted mimesis,” O’Donnell could be suggesting that enough is enough. Or, in smartly framing the Casualist tendency, he could actually be enshrining the insouciance and inexactitude that aritsts employ and celebrate rather than challenging them.
In either case, his approach, which humorously encompasses both a fascination with the phenomenon of artistic influence and his recent interest in the practice of painting, starts a compelling conversation.
"John O'Donnell: STILLLIFE," curated by Caleb Portfolio. The Schumacher Gallery, Westover School, Middlebury, CT. February 7 through March 16, 2014.
NOTE: John O'Donnell recently accepted a tenure-track position in the University of Connecticut's Department of Art and Art History. He is an alumnus of the UConn MFA program and also, for the past few years, an adjunct instructor there. Congratulations to all involved. Go Huskies--great hire!
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