Matt O'Neill is the Denver art world's perennial bad boy: he does things his own way regardless of what anybody thinks, which is why his varied works have such an in-your-face sensibility. Though on the surface, his paintings and drawings seem to be anti-intellectual (as do his explanations of them), when you look deeper, it's apparent that O'Neill has done an awful lot of thinking. He also has a vast knowledge of the history of modern art.
It's been a while since O'Neill was the subject of a major exhibit, and in my mind, he's never had one as important as Matt O'Neill: Thrift Store Sublime, now on view at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center.
The exhibit is part of the CSFAC's Raiding the Crates series, in which a show is built around works from its permanent collection. In this case, the center already owned two O'Neill paintings; it borrowed dozens more from the artist and various collectors to flesh out the display. Credit for the concept of Raiding the Crates, and for the O'Neill outing, goes to museum director and chief curator Blake Milteer and assistant curator Joy Armstrong.
I first became aware of O'Neill's work in 1986, having juried a couple of his paintings for an exhibit at the long-gone News Gallery. O'Neill was part of the wave of "lowbrow" artists who emerged in the '80s (following on the heels of neo-expressionism), treading on the boundaries of good and bad taste long before the graffiti and skateboarder aesthetic appeared on the scene.
As it turns out, O'Neill had just moved here from Chicago, where he was born and raised, to enroll in the Colorado Institute of Art (now the Colorado Art Institute), and he began showing his work in local galleries almost immediately. O'Neill says he'd known he was going to be an artist since he was a child, and he quickly achieved this dreamed-of status in Denver when he was only in his early twenties. "There I was, in a ripped flannel shirt and dirty jeans, going up against the canon — the fantastic paintings from art history," he says with a laugh. He also notes that the Old Masters and the modern ones weren't his only sources of inspiration: The countervailing aesthetic of underground comix was also important. This dichotomy between high and low culture has interested O'Neill his entire professional life.
In those days, O'Neill was doing pointedly naive views that were one part folk art, one part regionalism. In these paintings, he depicted the African-American culture in the neighborhood where he lived, Five Points. In the intervening years, he's gone in many different directions, sometimes all at once, with his work ranging from fairly straightforward representation to surrealism to abstraction, with a lot of different things in between.
"I've always been in love with the culture of painting," he says. "You know, how a painter can go into a room with an armful of crude materials and, like a shaman, summon up something. It's a type of magic. We think of the 'Mona Lisa' or 'The Wedding of the Arnolfini' or 'Blue Poles' as being entirely different kinds of things, but I see them all as being the same trick — a really good trick."
Back in the '80s and into the '90s, O'Neill was a major star in a firmament of contemporary representational artists who emerged on the Denver scene more or less simultaneously and thus constituted an instant school. I associate O'Neill most closely with Jeff Starr, but also with Bill Stockman and Stephen Batura, among others. All of them were — and still are — attempting to do something different with representations of the figure or the landscape.
This is where Thrift Store Sublime picks up, carrying us from the mid-'90s to the present. The exhibit is not a survey or a retrospective; rather, O'Neill himself chose to feature a handful of stylistic moves that he's made during the past twenty years.
First are the surrealist takes on 1960s yearbook photos, including "FFA Sweetheart," one of the paintings in the CSFAC's collection. O'Neill is an adept painter, and the surfaces of these works are extremely smooth, the forms precisely laid out. The work was done as a grisaille in black and white to ape the character of the original yearbook image on which it's based, and O'Neill has rendered the young woman's bust, hair and cowgirl hat in a completely straightforward way, as they would appear in a photo. But the features of her face have been scrambled à la Picasso, with her nose pushed over to one side and her mouth to the other, as though she were being viewed from different perspectives at the same time.
There's an entire body of paintings that take the same approach, using yearbook portraits as taking-off points for surrealist compositions. And these segue beautifully into the more self-consciously Picassoid paintings, like "Portrait of the Artist's Niece" and "Terri." For O'Neill, these pieces are a continuation of the same concerns he addressed in the yearbook paintings, but to my eye, they are very different, most obviously because they're in full color.
Perhaps O'Neill brackets both into the same group because his next change was so radical. The works in the following section are completely different, and O'Neill told me he used them as a kind of palate cleanser. I'm referring to the small clutch of contemporary-realist paintings done in the late 1990s and early 2000s, such as "Chihuahua," a photographically accurate if oversized portrait of a Chihuahua's head staring straight at the viewer. Though crisper in execution, it harks back somewhat to his irreverent realism of the 1980s.
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O'Neill is obviously a virtuoso with the paintbrush, and the newest paintings in the show, done in the past two years, are enormous abstractions. Or maybe they're parodies of abstractions — it's hard to know. The palettes used are dusty and almost faded-looking. Some of the pieces feature geometric patterns that have been loosely carried out; interestingly, they remind me of the patterns of the tiles that cover Gio Ponti's Denver Art Museum, and I wonder if that was an unconscious inspiration for O'Neill. In a couple, the geometric patterns are partly covered with organic, almost automatist skeins of lines, with these two antithetical approaches — one based on order, the other chaos — colliding in places.
O'Neill has said that he sees these abstracts as lampooning modernist abstraction, but he doesn't really pull that off, because his abstracts have all the beauty of classic ones. This characteristic is really shown off in "Three Musicians or Blue Poles Revisited," among the most ambitious of all the paintings in Thrift Store Sublime and a definite showstopper. I have to say that, while I knew O'Neill had been doing abstracts for years, this is the first time I recall being able to see them in some depth.
Speaking of depth, Thrift Store Sublime includes dozens of O'Neill's zany drawings, all hung salon style. For these, his aim was to capture the look of a teenager's ballpoint-pen doodles — though for conservation reasons, he used artist's inks. Many include references to bar tops, with elements like bottles and glasses; the obsessively dense passages refer to boredom, with the bar substituting for the classroom. The bar analogy is extended further through the hallucinatory character of some of the drawings, like the visions of a drunkard, which O'Neill intended.
In recent years, the CSFAC has been mining the local art world to find worthy subjects like Matt O'Neill to highlight. I just wish the DAM and MCA Denver would do the same thing more often than they do. It would save us all a lot of time and gas money.