EMPTY, RAW, NEW: A Micro Interview with ROBYN O’NEIL
by Elaine Sexton
ES: My sense of this particular selection is that of artist as post-apocalypse documentarian, the environment recomposed in shapes and colors not really associated with nature as we know it, as in “Black Moon” and “Little Pink Lake.” How far off am I on this? is your work a commentary on the natural world, hot and cold?
RO: This is absolutely where I am at with these new pieces. For about twelve years, I drew an apocalyptic world full of thousands and thousands of middle-aged men in black sweat suits. The landscape started off snow-filled and mountainous, but slowly went from romantic to a flat pastoral ground, and then to the ocean taking over the entire world after a devastating tsunami. Throughout all of those years, I drew the men killing each other, helping each other, committing suicide, holding funerals, picking flowers, and everything in between.
Once that was over, I envisioned a world with no one. Empty, raw, new. I saw tectonic plates, a heated ocean, and misty beginnings. It’s my imagined version of this world without the annoyance of us humans. And yes, after utter chaos. So I wanted it to be both the aftermath of The End and images of a new world.
ES: Would you say a few words about your process? These are drawings, but feel like paintings. And they resonate with heat as well as alienation.
RO: I like the “resonate with heat” part. Thank you. I consider them drawings because they’re on paper and I don’t use a paintbrush, but they’re getting close to being paintings. I guess I don’t really know the difference anymore to tell you the truth.
They all start with a ground of dense graphite. And the colorful parts you see are the graphite mixing with oil pastel. I sometimes use powdered graphite to tone down the vivid color of the oil pastel. And there are layers and layers of oil pastel smudged on, sometimes lifted off with scraping tools revealing parts that graphite under-layer. And when you see that almost pointillism like stuff, that’s me picking little pieces of oil pastel off of the pastel stick and dropping those tiny pieces carefully on the surface of the drawings, then using the back of my fingernail to rub it into the paper. Until I figured out an obsessive process with these oil pastels (a fairly new material for me and not at all a common medium for professional artists to use), I wasn’t happy. I need repetition. I like time consuming endeavors.
ES: The work is striking online, in person I imagine the pointillism you mention is more evident. This tactile, gritty part of your process, getting your hands “dirty” suggests not only getting close to the paintings’ surfaces but to the subject matter. Graphite like ash, bits of dropped paint rubbed in with your fingernail...sounds almost like collage, and in part sculpture. How much does the role of chance, the use of the discarded, influence the overall composition, if at all.
RO: There is something much more visceral and close to me and my body about this new process. It all feels somehow connected to my blood and veins now, if that makes any sense. The subject matter is so much more mysterious and less literal than my previous work, so something about that aids to my feeling more married to it.
I wrote an ekphrastic piece about the drawings we are talking about for a catalogue that was released with my latest solo exhibition, and, in this writing, you can sense how physical this has been. Briefly, it’s a fantasy story about a man who lives in the clouds and alters the landscape below him to better suit the person he’s in love with down on planet Earth. Here’s an excerpt:
“I did all sorts of dumb things up there too. Between sips of coffee, I’d drop tiny pieces of Kleenex from the clouds and shake paprika all over the top of your head. It was so much fun to do these kinds of things because you never had a clue. I admit, I did some pretty severe things too. Would you believe I set the entire ocean afire? That’s me, drinking coffee and performing miracles. Crazy what was possible from up there. I was just joking when I used the word “miracle,” but it is pretty nuts right? Water burned. Tell me the last time you saw something like that.”
To answer your question more directly, the role of chance has greatly affected the outcome of this new work. Which is a nice change from the past where I was in such severe control of every single element. That got old after a while. I almost didn’t even feel like an artist towards the end of making that series. I’ve realized since then that so much of feeling like an artist (whatever the hell that means) is about being surprised in the studio. These moments are what I live for as an artist, and I had very few of them until I made this shift and started with oil pastels.
As an example, during those times after I stopped that series of apocalyptic drawings I keep mentioning, I was fumbling around and making terrible work. It was truly wretched stuff. Then I had what I thought was a brilliant idea which also turned out to be ridiculous. I had a thought that I wanted to challenge myself to make sad, dark drawings of hot dogs. I wondered, ‘can I make a hot dog look sad?’ I know it sounds insane and/or dumb, but something made me want to try. So I did. And nothing came of it except a few failed attempts at what I was calling “Hot Dogs in a Dark Setting” and numerous social media jokes. I even started a trend amongst some people on Instagram and Twitter related to these drawings called #darkhotdogs. Search that at your own risk.
So, anyway, about a year after this hot dog thing, I got closer to figuring out how I was going to use oil pastels to continue to make non-wretched landscapes, and that is when I discovered that working on top of muddied, old paper worked better for me. I happened to use one of these old hot dog drawings as a starting point thinking I would for sure cover everything about the hot dog image up, and after a few months of layering graphite and oil pastel onto this thing and scraping some layers up, it ended up being what I consider my most beautiful of all the new works, “Reflections.” The thing is, if you look closely at the horizon line of that piece, the vivid setting sun that reads as something moody and powerful and lovely is actually simply the tip of a hot dog.
Robyn O’Neil was born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1977, and currently lives in Los Angeles, California. Her work was included in the 2004 Whitney Biennial. She is the recipient of numerous grants and awards, including a Joan Mitchell Foundation Grant. O’Neil has had several traveling solo museum exhibitions in the United States, and has been included in numerous acclaimed group museum exhibitions both domestically and internationally. She also received a grant from the Irish Film Board for a film written and art directed by her entitled “WE, THE MASSES” which was conceived of at Werner Herzog’s Rogue Film School.
Her work is represented by Susan Inglett Gallery in New York City, Talley Dunn Gallery in Dallas, and Western Exhibitions in Chicago. Prints are available through Graphicstudio , Electric Works, and Susan Inglett Gallery. For More on Robyn O’Neil visit her website: robynoneil.com