John O’Connor Artist Profile: A Voice of His Own

John O’Connor at his studio; photo by Etty Yaniv

At first it seemed odd to discuss basketball free throws with the artist John O’Connor in relation to his art work. Yet, athletic performance is an important part of O’Connor’s process. He energetically explains how a successful free throw involves magic and science, chance and control, practice and improvisation; themes that John O’Connor has been exploring in his paintings, drawings and sculptures since his formative years as an artist. Fascinated by the mechanisms behind a wide range of bodily functions ranging from blood pressure to sweat, and mental functions ranging from anxiety to memory, O’Connor has been using his own body to perform, practice, endure and repetitively measure physiological and mental functions as a departure point for his artwork.

John O’Connor: Blood Pressure, 2001, work on paper
Scratch, colored pencil and graphite on paper, 2002

Physiological reactions to extreme social circumstances particularly stir his imagination. He recalls how sitting in the front row at his grandfather’s funeral, he felt so emotionally distraught that he started itching uncontrollably.  Reflecting on the seeming randomness of this common corporeal phenomenon resulted a work on paper (Scratch), which was cut to the measure of his height and depicted patterns of itches on his body and later on his face in photographic images. The process involved meticulous enactment and documentation of physiological responses.  While in his studio unclothed, and concentrating on his own itching sensations, he put a mark on his body wherever they occurred and then he measured the relationship between those marks and transferred with a sharpie their exact location from a photograph of himself to his life-size paper.

“You see this receding line,” he says while removing a blue baseball hat and gesturing at his forehead with a smile, “I am also curious to see at what rate I am losing my hair.” Frequently deriving such literal observations from his personal life, O’Connor is preoccupied with such physical and mental mechanisms, translating them into exquisitely elaborate hand-made marks, which resonate complex and absurd systems.

Itchy Face 4, colored pencil on photograph, 2008
Hairy and Bald, colored pencil and graphite on paper, 2004

In light of such idiosyncratic work, it is hard to imagine O’Connor having to search for a distinct voice of his own.  But he can clearly recall how throughout his childhood and in his undergraduate college days, even though he had always loved to draw, he had regarded drawing like sport, a form of practice, a laborious process geared to perfecting a skill. Inherently shy, he grew up in a household with a strong work ethic and an emphasis on practice, especially regarding sports. “I came out number two as the shiest kid in my grade in high school,” he admits with a sly grin, “I always tried to wear clothes that would blend in.” That said, he still wished to be recognized for his art. He vividly recalls a memorable anecdote, “once I learned how to draw a pastel piece from a ‘how to’ book. I copied it step by step, finished it meticulously and presented it in my high school art class. I intended to say that it was a copy, but the teacher started praising it so highly that I ended up not saying a word about that.” An apologetic tone with traces of guilty pleasure seeps in as he admits, “the feeling that people liked it was great but I also felt that I could only mimic well. It took me a long time to internalize my influences and figure out my own way.”

Sleep Talking, colored pencil and graphite on paper, 2002

Feelings of inadequacy kept nagging him as a freshman in Westfield (Ma) State College, “these are real artists,” he recalls his inner voice telling him at the beginning of an art class, “what am I doing here?” But the more he learned about art, the more his confidence grew. First, abstract art became a revelation, then, he discovered Kokoshka, Jasper Johns, and color field painting. In addition, he gradually expanded his materials of his art vocabulary by incorporating trash and paper goods from the local hospital, where he worked as a cook and pot washer in order to finance his school. After graduating college, O’Connor found himself still employed as a cook at the hospital. Nevertheless, he became confident enough to start contemplating his future as an artist while craftily evading his father’s plan to finally get him a “real job” as a police officer. The winter before he ultimately started his graduate program in Pratt, O’Connor attended the Vermont Studio Center residency which turned out to be a formative experience for him.

One night there, as he was painting, he felt that he did not know what to make work about and was just repeating himself. “So I covered my painting with white house paint, and walked to this little convenience store at the edge of the town, got a full liter of coke and a bag of chips,” he recalls. Back in the studio, still frustrated with his painting, he ate the whole bag of chips, drank the entire bottle of Coke and then he started to draw a shape on the fresh paint. “As I started to draw,” he continues,” the line went into the paint, which was partially dry, and the shape dissolved in places and became like a ghost, in transition to becoming a form.” The next day he received enthusiastic responses. “I needed to do it again,” he asserts with a smile. So he repeated the exact same process:  store, chips, coke, line; but it didn’t work. In fact, he tried to re-create this moment countless times but nothing worked like the original “Ghost”. Embodying the principals of labor, practice, and endurance he had developed since early childhood, this extreme methodology of repetitive actions in order to recreate a moment of fleeting magic became central in his work thereafter.

Ghost, graphite, house paint on board, 1996

In grad school he felt that he found his own way of drawing.  Emulating notions by John Cage, the Situationists, Jeff Elrod and Jonathan Lasker, O’Connor utilized process and chance to invent his own linear expression. He experimented with projects that involved performative actions such as throwing dice in order to avoid the repetition of his own patterns. Later, at Skowhegan, he started a series of works about weather predictions, in which he explored the line between predictability and the unexpected in such unfathomably complex systems.

Memory Loss, graphite on paper, 2000
Weather, colored pencil and graphite on paper, 2000

His following projects encompassed a wide variety of subjects, including Alzheimer’s, sleepwalking, body weight fluctuations, and his blood pressure readings. For his October exhibition at Pierogi gallery he has been working on text-based paintings, small-scale sculptures, and a series of digital portraits. Unlike most of his other work in terms of process and media, yet along the same thematic vain, in his digital series O’Connor superimposes NASA imagery of sun spots over snapshots of his face. In these disturbing and concise hybrid- portraits the sun spots are embedded on the artists’ face like ritualistic body paintings, tattoos or terrible skin diseases. Simple but not simplistic, like Haikus, they evoke the sense of a fleeting moment, the fragility of human existence, the chaotic randomness in life and our desperate search for meaningful order and connectivity.

Sun Spot (March 24), 2013
Ego Letters, acrylic on panel, 2013

Partial view of John O’Connor’s exhibition The Machine and the Ghost at Pierogi Gallery, October 2013

Notions of chaos and order are rooted in the artist’s childhood memories. As an avid collector of objects, his mother has always filled her house with things, while always knowing exactly where everything was meant to be. A snapshot of the house, where he grew up, reveals what he describes as an organic growth of objects, “it seems like she collects and arranges all that stuff randomly but she surely has her own logic, her unique sense of order,” he says with a warm smile. It all appears to be connected after all.

The artist’s mother’s house; courtesy of John O’Connor