John Grande is the author of numerous articles that have appeared in Artforum, Sculpture, Art Papers, Canadian Forum, Vie des Arts, British Journal of Photography, On Paper, Vice Versa and Canadian Art. His most recent books include Balance: Art and Nature (1994) and Intertwining: Landscape, Technology, Issues, Artists (1998), both published by Black Rose Books, Montreal.
John O’Connor’s paintings are neither a window on the world nor are they abstract in the purist sense. The pictorial language of representation, the iconic language of abstraction, even the act of painting itself are all challenged in O’Connor’s work–not as process, but in terms of how we conceive of representation in our mind’s eye. Formal and structural precepts (the role and function of the art object) are usually defined as effects that involve a process–although they are, in fact, more often end results that have their beginnings in our cultural coding, our social precepts about the role of art.
Just as avant gardism has become a self-perpetuating social convention, much like a snake that eats its own tail only to see it grow back again, so the act of painterly representation has become histology of the meanings it rejects in circumscribing its own visual definitions. O’Connor’s “Real Illusions” move in the other direction. The imagery is temporal and trace-like–a distant echo of some pre-cognitive state of mind. The visual process is conceived as a kind of alliteration. O’Connor seems to suggest our beingness, or soul, is out there and not within us at all. Reality is elusive. Reams of material have been written on the conscious act of painting, yet no one has ever been able to prove where consciousness really exists. O’Connor’s paintings are ahistorical in the sense that no image can exist as an entity if the culture that brought it into being does not have a holistic conception of its place in the universe. O’Connor’s art is anti-metaphor, a surreal extravaganza of colliding visual anomalies. This is visual reportage in a world of virtual and visual excess.
The diverse elements painted into John O’Connor’s airbrushed acrylic paintings often resemble collage. At other times, the trompe I’ceil effects imitate object appropriations. These visual devices cause us to question the way objects and signs are used as metaphors for a reality that devalues the act of painting, rendering it merely on approximate metaphor for representation in whatever form it takes.
The experiential monoreality of today’s urban environment includes a forest of signs and symbols as confusing as the myriad of visual tricks and devices brought together in O’Connor’s paintings. The various manifestations of image culture that exist as physical entities in today’s real environments are no different in their conception than J. M. W. Turner or John Constable’s romantic nineteenth-century landscape paintings. Images and signs reaffirm humanity’s dominion over a holistic concept of nature and deny any direct connection between the two. This is a mindset that O’Connor’s unusual brand of art challenges. By juxtaposing image fragments, as they might be used in advertising, product packaging, or street signs, he reverses the effect. Instead of looking into these works, we read them as collective representations and are made aware of how chaotic image metaphors have become. The mimetic language of painting often relies on our reading of various abstract, representational, or conceptual elements. Few artists address the dilemma of illusionistic representation as a stereotype–where imagery serves to reaffirm the ingrained historical and cultural assumptions inherent to representation–as O’Connor does.
In 2 RD for the Muse (1988), what looks like a torn fragment of a Diebenkorn-esque landscape affixed to a blackboard background is, in fact, a painterly fabrication incorporated into the overall composition. The formulation of the piece is pure Pop Art, but the configuration is on informational mirror of O’Connor’s reflections on object appropriation in Pop Art. The artwork becomes a refractive planar surface prism of representation–where the objects, symbols, and abstract and figurative stereotypes are entirely self-construed. O’Connor’s paintings simulate these effects, questioning the dichotomies lying beneath any discourse on art and objecthood. In Mozart (1989), gestural arcs, musical bar lines, and stenciled letters further the sense that representation cannot, ultimately, be measured or quantified. O’Connor fills the Blackboard Series with humorous sleights of the eye. As such, any process of representation is seen to hinge its meaning on a visual language that embodies a sense of reality through the act of representation. The pointed image–be it figurative, gestural abstraction, or comprised of image fragments–seems no different in its cultural relativism from any mass produced object or symbol per se. Blackboard Jungle II (1986) achieves this effect by painting a realistic-looking piece of red chalk and yellow paper onto an ethereal background of glyphic-and-linear painted fragments that appear to have been partially erased. Using the blackboard as a metaphor for the act of pointing, O’Connor subverts the Pop Art paradigm of commercial object and image appropriation. Here is a “real” object–the blackboard as cultural artifact–that is merely a representation of itself, onto which diagrammatic, graphic, mathematical, notational words and symbols are painted. The imagery is ambiguous and suggests a cyclical, temporal illusion that parallels the way we conceive of imagery.
O’Connor reverses the order of representation in The Idiot Marks of Man’s Passing (1973) by presenting a sublime, romantic landscape in an octagonal-shaped format. At the core of this realistic scene appears a black, abstract circle. On closer inspection, the circle is found to be an aluminum mirror surrounded by fake fur in which the viewer’s image is reflected.
Iconic Pop Art elements are sometimes incorporated to contrast the temporal imagery (analogous to the thought process) that O’Connor presents. The Plays the Thing (1988), for instance, has “BLACK RUBBER BALL” scribbled into the background alongside painted imagery of mathematical notations, a red star, and a tiny card that casts a tiny pointed shadow. The stenciled lettering along two borders of the piece includes the artist’s own name. It is an autodidactic, tongue-in-cheek aside to Jasper Johns’ and Jim Dine’s deification of the object as symbolic metaphor. John O’Connor’s paintings defy categorical definitions by building visual maps in the no-man’s-land of the picture plane. Representation is unmasked and a behemoth of visual and object metaphors are unleashed. The staid language of product and object recreation that was Pop Art is revealed for what it was–an idiosyncratic embrace of materialism.
Pop Art allusions are evident in the trite white and pink silhouettes of a cat in Mau (1986). In on earlier work, titled Object Dart (1977), O’Connor avoided the target by drawing the object that flies through space to get there (a dart) in subtle ink tones at the center of one of his paper drawings. The paper creases provide a neutral background for the piece and the word object stenciled above it furthers the meditative aspect present in so many of his works from the late 1970s. The leaping tiger, the black star on a yellow square, and the calligraphic characters in A Clean Slate (1986) suggest some deeper illusionary dream state.
O’Connor’s art is a fulcrum of image fragments that challenges the materialistic myth that gave birth to object metaphors. In a paradoxical way, his art implies that representation itself is a fleeting, illusory state of mind. The graphs, graphics, glyphs, cryptogrophical notational markings, and scripted-stenciled motifs we see in these works are visual and relativistic incantations that challenge the social and cultural stereotypes of modern art history’s orthodoxies. His paintings suggest that representation of any kind involves a path of comprehension that leads one directly bock to one’s own historic and contemporary cultural coding, Rife with visual and iconic information, his art manufactures illusionary effects with an aesthetic predilection that is as conceptual as Duchamp’s readymades. Likewise, O’Connor puts together an array of alliterative visual motifs and in so doing alludes to the real dilemma of precognition with which the contemporary mind must deal. As he states: “Everything in these works is invented. I don’t paint from objects. I point from my mind.”