For his sixth Robischon Gallery solo exhibition, noted Colorado artist Kevin O’Connell’s ongoing quiet investigations of the northern and eastern plains of Colorado and Wyoming offer subtle, yet expansive observations of the landscapes where the impact of humankind may be less apparent, but no less significant. As a continuation of O’Connell’s series “Memories of Water” and “At the Big River Flat,” the artist presents the nuanced and poetic “Petrichor” featuring photographs which further call into question those perceptions of a discarded landscape, while bearing witness to the importance of the region’s precious, but diminishing rainfall. “Petrichor,” the shared title of both series and exhibition, is the word for the recognizably pleasant smell that frequently accompanies long-awaited rain as it hits the soil after a protracted period of dry weather. With panoramic images of subtle cloud formations with purposeful yellow-tinged grays and cornflower blue hues, the eye is held with a sense of anticipation. Along with the artist’s signature, understated landscape images both memory and future circumstance are in play as, O’Connell comes full circle, land to sky, in referencing the vitally important, watery relief upon the often-parched or dormant landscape.
Consistently attentive toward environmental issues and throughout his earlier works, O’Connell’s fascination with the massive machinery of industrialization prompted by his mid-West upbringing led him to create two tandem series: “Everything Comes Broken” and “Conventional Entropy.” Concurrently shown previously at both Museum of Contemporary Art Denver and Robischon Gallery, the machines in these series were focused on spinning wind turbines and the various apparatus of oil and gas extraction. As visual metaphors representing entropy – the degree of disorder that increases as the available energy within a closed system decreases – the series explored America’s energy-consumption habits focused through the monolithic structures used to create them, in what the artist terms a “terrible beauty.” A significant common element in these two earlier O’Connell series with weighty, man-made implements of energy, are the sere landforms of the windswept plains with delineating horizon lines bisecting the picture plane. The position of the camera lens is central as well, as the landscape confronts and reflects back upon the viewer in a kind of unspoken dialogue.
While the three newly-presented, large-scale “Memories of Water” photographs retain the horizon line to great expansive effect in a snow-covered field or a yellow-blossomed soy bean crop, “Big River Flat” and “Petrichor” series now embrace views without a specific horizon, meandering instead along a river’s edge or becoming completely unmoored within a rolling cloud bank. In this, O’Connell’s keen eye leads the viewer to the visual poetry that is at the heart of the artist’s intent. The breadth and meditative sense of place within each body of work is inextricably linked to his sensory experience of each unique landscape, not only sight, but also by scent as evidenced in his exhibition title. He states, “It occurred to me that while each season brings new olfactory sensations, each place in the landscape carries a signature scent. The sweet smell of forests on the west coast is different than the forests of the Rockies: the herbaceous notes of the high plains of Wyoming are distinct from the high plains of New Mexico: the saltiness of the beaches of Oregon much different than those of the Carolinas.” The artist further relates, “Even as the aroma of March’s dank and musky, yet verdant fields, winter had not yet quit, and another squall approached from the north. But the scorching heat of summer was not far off. Summer would bring different smells – sharp, dry, and dusty with hopes of breathing in the indistinguishable notes of petrichor. But by August I’ll long for the soft, gentle scent of autumn. When I am locked indoors I long for the experience of being in the land and the sensation of place, for it is to me the sensation of being alive.” Hyper-focused in photographic form and attentive to all that surrounds, the sensitive and remote nature of the Western landscape is brought to the fore by O’Connell’s dedicated presence in both the act of image-making and transformation.
Kevin O’Connell is a graduate of Purdue University and the University of Denver. He has twice been a Ucross Fellowship recipient and has exhibited in solo shows at MCA Denver and the Aspen Art Museum, Nicolaysen Art Museum, Casper, Wyoming, and in group exhibitions at the Denver Art Museum, among others. His work is included in the permanent museum collections of Center for Creative Photography, Tucson, Museum of Fine Art Houston, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Denver Art Museum, Bibliotheque Nationale de France, Paris, Museu de Arte Moderna, Rio de Janeiro, Brigham Young University Museum of Art, Ross Art Museum, Wesleyan University and Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, along with Qwest Communications, Inc., Kaiser Permanente, Inc., Fidelity Investments, Inc., Captiva Resources, Inc. and many other corporate and private collections such as the Born and Crawford Hotels and the Denver Convention Center Hotel where both photography and video are permanently installed.