JOHN O’CONNOR: HOW YOU SEE IT, HOW YOU DON’T by Peter Frank

Peter Frank is editor of Visions art quarterly and art critic for the LA. Weekly. In New York he served as art critic for The Village Voice and The SoHo Weekly News. Frank has also organized numerous theme and survey exhibitions for such prestigious institutions and organizations as Independent Curators Inc., The Alternative Museum, and Artists’ Space in New York; and most and most notably, “19 Artists–Emergent Americans,” the 1981 Exxon National Exhibition mounted at the Guggenheim Museum tent.

2 RD fir the Muse, Acrylic on board, 1988, 40″ x 30″ Private collection

ConAlmost from the inception of his career, John O’Connor’s art has explored that fertile interstice between idea and image, that place where language sprouts, flourishes, fails, and rises again. He is not alone in plumbing these heights and scaling these depths: what he calls “conceptual realism,” where word and picture, concept and concretion mesh and metamorphose one into another, is a durable tendency in American art. But O’Connor has embraced it with a thoroughgoing passion–as well as a quick intellect and slippery wit.

Indeed, from a certain angle–one the art-historically-minded O’Connor would encourage–O’Connor’s work is summative, recapitulating various modes and aspects of conceptual realism and making them playoff one another. The trompe-l’oeil still lifes painted by late-19’” century American artists such as Harnett, Peto, and Haberle brim with the same kind of mundane but dense information, and deliver that information with the same optical trickery, as fills O’Connor’s deceptively lucid panels. The word games, image games, word-image games, and other meta-rebuses that moved from Victorian parlors to the art of the surrealists’ American inheritors, from Cornell to Comix, recur, in spades, throughout O’Connor’s oeuvre. The anti minimal, pro-regional hi-jinx of Funk art–a kind of thinking hick’s Pop–encouraged the conflation of language and image, thought and picture, medium and message.

O’Connor was schooled in the epicenter of Funk, pretty much at the moment of it’s apex, by William T. Wiley, one of its most prominent, and most extravagant, exemplars. While studying in the Sacramento area, O’Connor also benefited from the more demure, but no less heady and startling, teaching of Wayne Thiebaud, whose take on the “common image” proposed a heightened realism that worked like, but didn’t look like, both the Pop Art from back east and the trompe-l’oeil stuff of old.

Thiebaud, and in a different way Wiley, also provided O’Connor a healthy regard for studio pedagogy, encouraging him to become a teacher as well as artist and, indeed, to regard his teaching as part of his art and vice versa. Lightly but firmly didactic in their visual diction (and/or, if you would, their verbal appearance), O’Connor’s pictorial notations constantly show us how to view a pictorial notation as well as how to make one. Like an opera singer who has carefully cultivated a dramatic stage presence as well as a golden voice, and who has done so in part to be able to pass on such crucial ambidexterity as part of his or her legacy, O’Connor trains us by showing us by example–example that has not been dumbed down, but cleaned up. He entices us into his intellections not by making them less elusive (or for that matter allusive), but by making their elusions (and certainly their allusions) more inviting. If Americans can learn to eat spicy food, they can learn to “read” art.

The importance of pedagogy in O’Connor’s artistic personality–in his art as much as in his professional standing–has manifested with a kind of ecstatic clarity in his blackboard paintings. After all, as he observes, “I have been surrounded by blackboards for most of my life.” Rather than run from this recurring constant, O’Connor has made it a leitmotif, and explored it in depth–looking behind the blackboard’s obdurate surface not (just) to its associative resonance, but to its inherent visual-verbal depth and the versatility of its physical as well as social context. It is a context that allows graffiti, imagery, signage, informal notation, and pure painting to co-exists. Blackboards, he writes, “are the environment of palimpsests, ghosts of gestures, the residue of images and words linking thoughts and concepts of visual entities and written language.”

O’Connor is not alone in musing on the blackboard as physical presence and as epistemological field; artists as diverse as Arakawa and Vernon Fisher have been drawn (as it were) to the same motif for many of the same reasons. But O’Connor’s blackboard works assume a reflexive intensity not found in the art of the narrative-driven Fisher or the semiotically engaged Arakawa. In their work, as in the work of other artists (again, mostly American) who have created photo-realist chalkboard-paintings, the blackboard is a supportive construct for related concepts; for O’Connor, the blackboard is the icon–or, more accurately, the iconostasis, the defining framework for iconic presentation and discussion. The blackboard is O’Connor’s page–perhaps his book.

If O’Connor’s earlier work, before 1985, is not “framed” by the blackboard motif, it is similarly powered by the painter’s sly and technically assured exploitation of what is apparently a native gift for exactitude and concomitant disdain for the merely illustrative. O’Connor’s art has always been full of tricks, but he is one of those magicians who delights in instructing his audience in the slight-of-hand, because he knows that if the audience knows how the picture works, they’ll approach with greater confidence and broader mind what the picture says. A little knowledge may be a dangerous thing, but John O’Connor, the punning painting pedagogue, knows that a little knowledge leads to a little bit more.

Los Angeles, CA – April 2003