Art & Culture in Chicago

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Robyn O’Neil @ Tony Wight Gallery

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(This was originally published on 10/08/09 on Gapers Block.)

Tony Wight Gallery is very quiet right now, like the stark silence after a tornado passes through, but the scene is much less cluttered.  In the front room, Robyn O’Neil’s giant graphite drawings hang on the walls, floating in clean, white frames, with plenty of breathing room between them. They depict post-apocalyptic scenes, which, without a familiarity with her previous work, might just look like textural investigations of hair and water.  In the back room, her small drawings continue the same style and theme, but more intimately, and an upside-down ship and a cluster of pyramids are added to the mix.

O’Neil’s previous work, part of a saga which was executed over the past eight years, features wintery landscapes and seascapes.  Dramatic and drably unwelcoming, the scenes are usually populated by groups of little men in matching sweatsuits.  In the early work, the men congregate together, enjoying each other’s company over marshmallows, hugs, and calisthenics, oblivious to the storm clouds looming overhead.  In the later work, they struggle to stay alive, hanging from ropes and rafts.  When there aren’t little men, there are usually horses or birds, often dead or dying themselves, but always at least an allusion to a landscape.  The work is reminiscent of Bruegel and Darger, but not as literal as either.  It does not follow a clean narrative.  Instead, it creates a mood.

On Sinking continues O’Neil’s focus on the timeless theme of man against nature, but now nature has won.  Ominous clouds linger and waves still thrash about, but only one little sweatsuited man is left behind.  We do not see his face, only the back of his head, slick and wavy, floating on a blank page, and we imagine that he is staring into the void that took his friends away. Poetic titles like, “A Song of So Many Beginnings,” and “For the Next Breath,” play off of the drama and the dubiousness of the work.

The drawings, although impeccably rendered, are stylized.  The waves have fingers, the clouds are scratchy, and the hair is plasticky, but this adds to the allure.  O’Neil’s work fits into a trend that has been floating around the art world for about a decade; one which embraces woodsy, fantastical worlds, inhabited by mysterious animals and simplistic people- an antidote to a slick media-saturated world.  This trend is reflected in the work of Amy Cutler and Laura Owens, among others, and has been associated with the “MFA outsider art” phenomenon. However, the lack of cuteness and the labor intensiveness of O’Neil’s work sets her apart.  There is something to be said for that.  Themes this heavy cannot be executed breezily, or even beautifully.  The work must be labored over, the process must be painful, or else it is almost hypocritical to create it.

The work in On Sinking doesn’t allow itself to be criticized; there is nothing to dislike.  The worst that can be said about the show is that it is ambiguous, and that would be a lazy thing to say.  The viewer will need to do a bit of backtracking and reading if they are to understand what is going on.  But, even if they are unwilling to do so, surely they can’t help but appreciate the love that was put into this work.

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Written by Kelly Reaves

October 25, 2009 at 10:42 pm

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