“O’Connor plainly knows something but does not fake it which is all to his credit. Rather, his is a deliberate art from start to finish… But as purposeful as the decisions he makes are, and as resolute as their realization is, there’s something excessive and slightly “off” about those decisions, causing them to be liberating to the viewer exactly at the points – and those points are scattered throughout individual drawings and across the work as a whole – where explanations break down and deducing a “raison d’être” – or, in plainer terms “getting it” – becomes far less interesting than being absorbed by the work, and ultimately lost in it.” (Robert Storr)
Pierogi is pleased to present an exhibition of recent work by John O’Connor. O’Connor continues to develop his idiosyncratic, large-scale works on paper alongside modestly scaled paintings and sculpture. Some of the most ambitious works in this exhibition continue a series of large-scale, narrative and sequential drawings – The Butterfly Series – that O’Connor began developing three years ago with an initial drawing, Butterfly. In O’Connor’s signature colored pencil and graphite on paper, he is making a series of interconnected, pictographic, and narrative drawings, each measuring over seven feet tall. Thus far he has made four (Alfa, Beta, Charlie, and Delta) and intends to ultimately make twenty-six in total, one for each letter of the alphabet.
“In these works, I am exploring the relationship between language and image in the form of the pictogram. Drawing from historical pictogram styles and techniques (Ancient Sumerian, Egyptian, and Chinese), and contemporary methods (Emoji, computer coding, children’s books, and video games), I am attempting to describe, through his own first person account, the complete lifespan of an individual. The drawings mix image, logos, script, and pattern with invented fonts and text styles that I create. The narrative contains moments of autobiography, but is mainly imaginary. I invent the story section-by-section, line-by-line, with no idea of how it will unfold. I integrate references to the personal and public freely: film, my dreams, social class hierarchy, religious belief systems, and current events, among others. As each story unfolds, I react to the various obstacles that the individual encounters.” (O’Connor)
The protagonist of the series, likely a working class teen at the beginning of the narrative, ingests drugs, engages commercial spaces, encounters various obstacles, and dreams of the future. O’Connor allows each stimulant – legal, illegal, ingested, visual, audio, emotional, etc. – to dictate the next move in his life. Incrementally (as demonstrated scientifically by the butterfly effect), his life begins to take shape and the semi-autobiographical moments get absorbed into a greater social narrative. Each drawing leads to the next, as day turns into night, and he struggles to survive.”
O’Connor hopes that “…in looking at / reading these works, the viewer will begin to question his or her own motivations for making fundamentally human choices, and question how we decide the most basic things in life – to eat, sleep, love, work, laugh, drink, etc.” Each decision the individual in the drawings makes will accumulate over time into the shape of his emotional and physical life. He (in this case) is the sum of his actions, whether decided by him or some external force more powerful than he. The greater order is dictated by each micro action. “I have no idea how this person’s life will unfold, but I am fascinated…to find out.”
O’Connor’s work references not only other visual artists – such as Alfred Jensen, John Cage, Emma Kuntz, Paul Laffoley – but also authors such as Patricia Highsmith, Donald Barthleme, Joy Williams, Shirley Jackson, and James Salter, whose works have influenced the writing in these drawings.
In another text and pictographic work, distinct from this series, Last Week, O’Connor draws out six last meals requested by six individuals on death row. As described by O’Connor, “I was thinking about how the foods would … taste, and how that’s the closest I’d ever get to knowing these people, as people. …There’s also a strange and tragic finality to those specific choices. I can relate in very specific ways to the food choices, but not to the person’s conditions. I was interested in that tension.”
Lucky Break bridges the gap between these narrative–pictographic works and O’Connor’s interest in visualizing data from subjects of interest to him (such as the lottery, numbers, chance) through idiosyncratic systems and improvised rules for mark making, often incorporating chance and randomness, resulting in works like Noahbot, The Most Perfect Number, 3.55, and 9.12. “I try to connect visual patterns with conceptual or information-based patterns.” (O’Connor)
As John Yau notes, “[g]iven O’Connor’s interest in the mundane and how he might use it to measure something about our common experience, his drawings are remarkably different from each other. Clearly, by refusing to dump his preoccupations into the same format, the form he finds always fits the content, making the two indivisible. He keeps the interplay between the overall drawing and the detailed bits of information tightly tuned, like a concert violin.”
This will be O’Connor’s sixth one-person exhibition at Pierogi. His works are included in the permanent collections of The Museum of Modern Art (NYC), Whitney Museum of American Art (NYC), among others. His work has been included in exhibitions such as the Tang Museum’s “Classless Society,” (Saratoga Springs, NY). O’Connor received an MFA from Pratt Institute and studied at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture.
Catalogue available with essays by Rick Moody, Robert Storr, and John Yau.
“John O’Connor seems to simultaneously occupy three divergent positions. He is a statistician crunching numbers, a satirist working in the mode of Jonathan Swift, and an occultist trying to divine the messages hidden in the stuff of everyday life. His work brings together dry, unrelenting logic, a sharp eye for human foibles, and a variety of means for unlocking the secret knowledge in the mundane.” (John Yau)