THE BLACKBOARDS by Ruth Weisberg

Ruth Weisberg is an artist and critic, and the former Dean of Fine Arts at the University of Southern California, 1996.

A Clean Slate, Acrylic on board, 1986, 40″ x 30″

John O’Connor’s blackboard paintings are based on a series of compelling paradoxes. What seems like on accumulation of spontaneous gestures is really the product of painstaking planning and premeditation. Verisimilitude and conceptualism are usually thought of as polar opposites, but in O’Connor’s oeuvre they form a thought-provoking and poetic alliance. In this work, tromp l’oeil realism is placed at the service of such complex ideas as creativity and extinction. The paradox of joining a self-conscious process of cognitive associations with the visual manifestations of the unconscious reflects some of the major currents in twentieth-century art. O’Connor seems to draw on the rationality of late modernism, the free association of Surrealism, and the primacy of questions of representation in Post-Modernism.

Since 1985, the blackboard has been the basis of O’Connor’s work. It re-creates both the autobiographical setting and the quest for knowledge that are the core of O’Connor’s experience. In the artist’s words, “The Blackboard Series has its origins in the classroom where I have been surrounded by blackboards for most of my life–first as a student, then as on artist-teacher. They are the environment of palimpsests, ghosts of gesture, the residue of images and words linking thoughts and concepts of visual entities and written language.”

Typically, O’Connor explores concepts that cluster around a central idea. A Clean Slate (1986) is the repository for the artist’s thoughts on the war in Viet Nam. The blackboard evokes both the idea of a “clean slate,” a record showing no discrediting marks, and “to slate,” which is colloquial for severe punishment or harsh criticism. This punning and associative word ploy is overlaid by visual images: a leaping white tiger, oriental calligraphy, the Lincoln and Washington Monuments. The ideas manifested are also reflected in the visual gestalt of the individual paintings. For example, in Works In Progress II (1988)–which is a complex representation of entropy and the relationship of order and chaos–the progression of marks from left to right move from a platonic order to a frenetic mark-making that dissolves any recognition of individual signs into a field of energy.

Many of O’Connor’s paintings feature simple diagrammatical constructions that, in some cases resemble mathematical proofs as in Winter (1992) or Irrational (1994).The sense of palimpsest and dusty overlay has given way to charting and mapping, but the conceptual projections remain very dense.

The open-ended and questioning nature of O’Connor’s work over the last decade is manifested in both its contradictions and in its playfulness. He depicts the inverse reality of the white mark on the dark ground, which can be read as the familiar chalky and didactic blackboard or a constellation of marks defining a deeper mindscape. Whatever readings the viewer brings to these works, John O’Cornor’s poetic and enigmatic paintings have a profound appeal to both the mind and the eye.