John O’Connor at L’Space presented in conjunction with Pierogi Gallery
There is an astonishing amount of information in John O’Connor’s drawings. The work, currently on show in Chelsea at L’Space Gallery, explodes off the paper with words and numbers, names, logos, and dates. It’s information overload, and that is part of the genius of the show.
It’s O’Connor’s first solo show in eight years, and clearly, he’s had a lot on his mind. It is a dense exhibition, and you need to either give yourself a lot of time or come for two visits, as I did. The drawings, all made with colored pencil and graphite, grapple with huge questions– philosophy, ethics, politics, linguistics, and history, all the while appearing as visually appealing pop art. It is only as you attempt to decipher the code or puzzle the underlying logic that you begin to understand that there’s something very different than fun “pop” drawing going on here. His interests roam all over the intellectual map, from chess strategy to the writings of Plutarch.
There is a particular obsession– and I use that word as a compliment– with cause and effect, both philosophical and visual. As in the piece Car Crash 2023. O’Connor has taken the “chain” theory from Newton’s Law of Physics- rapid changes in kinetic energy are transferred from object to object. OK, car crash=chain reaction, that sounds simple enough. But O’Connor takes it onto another realm by saying, “I thought of this as analogous to the societal transfer of wealth from poor to rich. This process is evident in products and assets– vehicles whose practical function is incrementally usurped by their form as luxury objects.” He has re-imagined the chain effect of a multi-car crash as an analogy to capitalist desire and status. The “crash” begins in the upper left-hand corner and as the crashes continue the cars become more and more expensive, they are interspersed with cartoon and fictional cars, logos and seemingly random words and slogans. The entire drawing spirals into the center, where it all dissolves into an abstracted “wormhole” that, in O’Connor’s Universe, takes you back to the beginning. The entire drawing thus becomes an infinite loop of consumerism and advertising.
If this all sounds like a lot to put into one drawing, well, it is. Many of the works in this show seem to be almost made in a fever dream. They all have deep underpinnings, and the ideas, as well as the visuals, come spinning out at you with force field energy. Some of them feel to me a visualization of the way the brain makes connections. It’s an interesting dichotomy because these drawings must have taken an enormous amount of pre-planning and time to create, but the impact is instant and visceral. The very process that he uses to make these–colored pencil and graphite–is time-intensive, and when you see the dense color-saturated surfaces, it is a little mind-boggling that they are pencil and not paint.
The use of advertising images and fonts of every imaginable type reflects the bombardment of commercial imagery in our world. O’Connor faithfully reproduces recognizable slogans and typefaces. He has a particular fondness for the sounds of old comic books and TV shows (CRUNCH! BATMAN! NEW!). His mastery of the reproduction of these many iconic visual/verbal images is remarkable.
Echo reminds me of one of my favorite childhood word games- The Rebus. This is a puzzle where words are represented by both pictures and letters to spell out a story. I love the dance O’Connor does between the amusing and the profound. The subject matter of his work is deep and dense and heady, yet the images are infused with a pop art sensibility. You’re a little dazzled by the visual games, and the more serious content sneaks up on you as you try to “read “the game.
Beyond his stunning drawings, there is sculptural installation in this show that feels like O’Connor’s peripatetic brain jogging off into another direction. Words flow up, down and around hanging shapes. They don’t feel completely in dialogue with the drawings, despite their common theme of the use of words. The sculptures feel a little thin. Entirely worthy pieces, just not quite as powerful as the drawings.
Get yourself well-caffeinated and put on your thinking cap before you see this show. The work is provocative and offers no easy answers. And that fits perfectly with the state of the world.today.
Man Bites Don Bites Man- at L’Space through February 17th. 524 West 19th St, NYC. Presented in partnership with Pierogi Gallery
*John O’Connor is quoted from the catalogue for the exhibition. 2023