BACK TO SCHOOL by Gerard Haggerty

Gerard Haggerty has received support from the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Ford Foundation. He writes for ARTnews, and teaches at Brooklyn College, City University of New York.

“As a well-known cabalist once said, ‘If you wish to attain the invisible, you must penetrate the visible to the uttermost.’ ” – Max Beckmann

“USAUSA,” 15 inches by 12 inches, mixed media

The dust of history is more than a metaphor. We’ve all seen it. In fact, we spent our formative years–day after day–sometimes hungry for knowledge but always eager for recess, staring at that dust. Most folks are likely to think they behold it again when they see the work of John O’Connor, an artist who has spent more than a decade painting representations of blackboards that are virtually indistinguishable from the chalk-dusted slabs of slate they depict.

Three centuries ago, the philosopher John Locke proclaimed that we all enter the world a blank slate, a tabula rasa. O’Connor’s blackboards are anything but blank. Logarithmic spirals, Golden Sections, perspectival diagrams, and other cornerstones of Western visual culture are inscribed on a surface that appears to have been repeatedly rewritten and erased. In more than one sense, there are lessons here: knowledge is ever changing, and history itself can be wiped out. These bittersweet truths are as old as the defaced statues of headless pharaohs, and as modern as the Cultural Revolution that allowed centuries of Chinese art to vanish in the blink of an iconoclast’s eye. As Picasso said of pictures, a culture is also “the sum of its destructions.”

To be sure, some of the messages on these blackboards aren’t part of the public domain. Works depicting the painter’s palm prints, Florida’s palm trees, a family cat named Mau and a host of other autobiographical references are often playfully punctuated with decals (an apple for the teacher, for instance) and trompe I’oeil stencils that seem taped onto the faux-erased surface. This private iconography suggests that personal memory is also ephemeral and mutating.

Realism has always involved the creation of reasonable facsimiles. In certain trompe I’oeil instances, the facsimiles are more than reasonable. They appear to be the real thing, and so we look again. In this game of “trick the eye,” artist and onlooker are like two chessmasters, each trying to see one move ahead of their opponent. The painter must double-check every detail and hone his skills in an effort to create a seamless illusion; viewers examine the image ever more carefully to find the telltale clue that unmasks the hidden truth. It’s a difficult challenge; barring the few forgers, who have managed to avoid prison, John O’Connor is the best contemporary “counterfeiter” in the business.