THE TRUTH OF ILLUSION by Richard Vine

Richard Vine, the current managing editor of Art in America, has served as editor-in-chief of the Chicago Review and of Dialogue: An Art Journal. His articles on art, literature, and intellectual history have appeared in numerous journals, including Salmagundi, Modern Poetry Studies, and New Criterion.

Brown Bagging It, Mixed media on paper, 1978, 14″ x 11″

John A. O’Connor is engaged in one of the oldest–and arguably one of the strangest–endeavors in the history of Western art. The impulse toward pure illusionism, the desire to fool the eye and mind of the viewer, was a major component of Greek naturalism. This shift from symbolic to lifelike representation is commemorated in the 5th-century B.C. legends of Zeuxis, who painted grapes so realistic that birds tried to peck them, and his rival Parrhasios, who tricked Zeuxis into trying to draw aside a painted curtain in order to see another “work” behind it.

Plato, the godfather of all conservatives, deplored these confusions as a dangerous distraction from reality and truth. Ever after, nonetheless, certain artists have striven to enhance illusionism not merely for the fun of the trick (an element not to be denied) but also for the sake of a greater philosophical point. The means were dynamism, architectural framing (often extended or faked), cartellino (a object), imagistic windows and vistas, etc.–but the end effect was generally one (or more) of three. In rough terms, religious artists sought to confirm the wonder of God’s creation (the multiplicity of His creation, the perfection of His cosmic design); secular artists to celebrate the fleeting glory, the poignancy, of earthly life; and empirical, post-Enlightenment artists to point out the degree to which any model of concrete reality is a mental construct, subject to deception, preconditioning, and error.

O’Connor’s works–particularly the “blackboard” paintings, in which the invocation of a lesson is most direct–would seem to be firmly entrenched in the postmodern questioning of discourse, both visual and verbal. Clearly this is how the artist, a veteran professor, speaks of the project. Calling his method “conceptual realism,” he stresses that the teaching slate’s multiple erasures and emendations trace a history of infinite approximation, of constantly altered “certainty.” The chalkboard palimpsest refutes fixed reality, or at least any hope of an unshakable human grasp of its essence. The half obliterated letters of America (1998), reflecting a sensibility largely formed in the Vietnam War era, invite us to ask what is myth and what substance, what is transient and what permanent, in the country they name. Indeed, the link between naming and conjuration is strong throughout the oeuvre: from the insistence upon an object that is not in fact there–in works like White Slate #1 (1976), Page from a Book of Ours (1976), and Brown Bagging It (I 978)–to the suggestion of the power (and fallibility) of signs: Chinese characters in Erasing History (1989), words and letters in The Play’s the Thing (1988), numbers in The Definitive Journey (1999), and even diagrams in Johns’ Theory (2002).

Such is O’Connor’s announced stratagem. But an outside observer might well ask if there is not an implicit agenda in his work as well–one perhaps beyond conscious intent. Trompe l’oeil illusionism creates for the viewer a phantom reality, a second existence. Once, in the age of faith, this alluded, in part, to a realm of spirit behind the material. Today, in an era that no longer subscribes to transcendence, it seems to imply a love of physical reality so intense that the world must not only be made present but made present a second time–as though the artist were saying, in a protest against the loss of immortality, that one life, one encounter with earthly things, is not enough. Perhaps this is a desire O’Connor shares with the advocates of high-tech illusionism, too. What is the ultimate wish behind high-definition TV, computer assisted video effects, and virtual reality except to have this world, and have it more abundantly?

New York City, NY – April 2003