Matt O誰eill

Back on the scene.

It seems like everyone has their own list of who should be in Decades of Influence: Colorado 1985 -- Present at the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Center for Visual Art, the Gates Sculpture Triangle and the Carol Keller Project Space. I've even done my own roster, "Extra Innings," on page 47.

Obviously, I think it's an interesting topic of conversation, and I've talked to a lot of people about their specific picks. One artist kept cropping up again and again: Matt O'Neill, who burst onto the scene in the mid-'80s.

This is truly amazing, since O'Neill essentially dropped out of the local art world about five years ago and has only rarely shown his work since. The Chicago native came to Colorado to be a ski bum, but moved to Denver in 1986 and took up painting in earnest.

His first efforts were what he calls "urban folk art," but they are way too sophisticated to really fit this description. The first piece I saw was a cartoonish depiction of an artist -- wearing a beret, no less -- standing at his easel in front of a black choir in a church. I juried the painting into a show at the long-gone Newsgallery.

O'Neill soon gave up on these sorts of paintings and moved toward a naturalistic realism. As with the earlier pieces, his subjects were his African-American neighbors in Five Points, where he lived at the time. A fine example of this style is "Big Dick, Black Dick" (left), which is owned by the Denver Art Museum -- but has never been exhibited.

Though he got a lot of commissions, O'Neill grew tired of this style, so he switched gears, combining high- and low-brow influences in surrealist portraits inspired by yearbook photos. He characterizes these as "pimply faced Picassos." Currently, O'Neill is working on a series of abstracts, a new and unexpected development.

It felt weird for O'Neill to not be included in Decades. "It was like a family reunion that I wasn't invited to," he says with a sigh. Well, rest assured that if I'd been in charge of the guest list, he would have definitely been on it.

 
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