Wunderkind artist Robyn O’Neil (at the Des Moines Art Center through May 23) stalks both high and low culture for stimulation.
“I read the classics. Except for Cormac McCarthy, that’s about all I read. Walt Whitman, Nabokov, I just finished the complete Proust thing,” she said, before admitting a rather different influence.
“I love bad TV. I have it on all the time while I work,” she revealed, adding that her alter ego is a character from “Roseanne.”
“Darlene Connor is my hero. We’re virtually the same age, grew up together,” O’Neil explained.
The Texan resembles Roseanne‘s younger daughter in many ways. Both grew up in “average Middle American households” and were usually the smartest person in whatever room they occupied. Both depended upon dark humor to muddle through their teenage years with “jerk” boy friends, and both went off to art school in Chicago only to discover they missed their fathers terribly.
"Most people see me and assume the artist is late. They can’t believe these expressions come out of this demeanor. I work at it. I am product of polite Midwestern moral responsibility that demands one be cheerful amongst others. It‘s a good thing I spend most of my time alone, other than with my dog. I couldn’t handle a real social life with a job. I break down and cry when I am alone, for reasons I couldn’t explain to others.
"I need that. I have to pace. When this opening is over, I will not explore Des Moines, I will shut myself in my hotel room and read. That’s how I do it. Patrica Highsmith wrote that imagination functions better when you don’t have to speak to people. I believe that," she said.
Had she been real, Darlene Connor might have created the darkly humorous universe that O’Neil etched
“obsessively” over seven years with the nothing more than the smallest lead pencil and the largest commercial paper. That universe is populated by funny little men in track suits and sneakers, modeled after the death shrouds of the Heaven’s Gate suicide cult. Her men behave badly and not so badly, balancing acts of cruelty and brotherhood.
"These are my melancholy worlds, I don’t use models, it’s all my imagination. I admire the Italian Renaissance painters sense of perspective, how buildings have an unnatural awkward relationship to landscapes. My men float awkwardly like that. Unlike trees, I don’t really let them fit in, they float on the landscape, sometimes without even casting a shadow," she explained.
O’Neil gives cynical titles to her works:
“Everything that stands will be at odds with its neighbor and everything that falls will perish without grace.”
“As Ye the sinister creep and feign, those once held become those now slain.”
“As darkness falls on this heartless land, my brother holds tight my feeble hand.”
“As my heart quiets and my body dies, take me gently through your troubled sky.”
“Oh how the heartless haunt us all”
Such titles were grave enough that Artforum magazine attributed them to the “Book of Revelations.”
“That was flattering. Someone thought something I wrote sounded Biblical,” she said, before revealing that Goya’s “Disasters of War” were an inspiration for her vision.
“Who doesn’t love that?” she asked.
In O’Neil’s drawings, men are always secondary to Mother Nature. Trees, owls, bison, dogs and horses cast shadows in some works in which her soulless men do not. The latter indeed die without grace, while her trees perish in magnificent splendor and her talon-bearing oceans and skies reveal superhuman countenances.
"I am a severe weather watcher, I am obsessed with that too. I mean I am one of those geeky people who calls in weather news to the TV station. It comes from growing up in Omaha and North Texas."
Her series concludes dramatically with the end of mankind.
“That was my intention from the beginning. That’s why I never drew a woman, to remove their hope of procreation,” she explained.
Her final survivor is last seen desperately clinging to a tightrope above a sea of wrath. O’Neil thought his fate was obvious.
"I always knew I would kill all the men off. I just didn’t know when till it was time. I could have ridden off into the sunset with the men too. Could have made a nice living continuing to draw them, that’s what people want. People love these goofy guys but I could care less. They’re too goofy for me now.
"I don’t see the world that way anymore. I have a little more respect from human life now. I see the world in quieter tones, more somber and less anxious than before. I have grown more comfortable with melancholy," she explained.
The more confortable O'Neill takes others unexpected. For all practical purposes, this writer found her to be a rather cheerful young lady. She laughed when I told her that.
“People have trouble with how devastating my work is. One sweet old lady in Dallas told me that she believed he was going to climb right on up to Heaven. I guess I got what I deserved, but hat’s not how I see it,” she said.
She's not so comfortable that she wants her photo taken. After I snapped her she asked that I never publish it anywhere. Preferring to deal with the cheerful persona, I promised.
Two drawings in the Art Center show portend O’Neil’s future. One is a take on Caspar David Friedrich’s depiction of a poem by Goethe, the super ego of Romanticism and the original reconciler of high and low cultures.
"Even a purely romantic scene like that, I was drawn to the idea of a black & white rainbow - not exactly hopeful. I can’t help imposing a down note even in romance. Bird of prey die mating in free fall. That’s romantic, " she confessed.
The other places her doomed tribe within the medieval legend of Magonia - a mysterious place beyond the clouds that has inspired true believers inpredetermination, utopia, and UFO sightings. O’Neil says she’s putting her pencil down to work on an opera about that footnote to France’s Dark Ages. She brought her composer to Des Moines - Chicago singer-songwriter Daniel Knox who shares style with Tom Waits, a view point with Randy Newman and a first name with Darlene Connor’s dad. O’Neil said she’d never even listened to an opera until she was urged to write one about Magonia, by Werner Herzog. But, that’s another story in Robyn O’Neil’s brilliant career.
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