Contributed by Margaret McCann / Kent O’Connor’s “Everything All at Once” at Mendes Wood DM comprises small portraits, landscape studies, and several larger paintings, including still-lifes in shallow interiors, which he calls tabletops. The show’s evocative title, which relates to their multiplicity, may also be after a song or film. O’Connor’s description qualifies intense observation with the levity of comics. The latter informs the work of many younger figurative painters today who developed as digital creativity spread across the internet, and as Pop Surrealism contested the divide between illustration and painting. Stylized visual vocabulary also implicates the early twentieth-century Modernist empowerment of shape (already emboldened by ukiyo-e) to direct, rather than serve, form. Showing through is the paradigm of Picasso, who “progressed from using various African techniques, such as reversing concave and convex lines in a face or figure, to a reduction of figures to geometric shapes that led directly to cubism.” O’Connor’s work shares Louis Fratino’s decorative intelligence and Jonas Wood’s faux naiveté, but its oblique emotional skepticism is temperamentally closer to German New Objectivity than Matissean joie de vivre.
In the weirdly stirring Zebra Between Two Objects – which seems to reference Lucian Freud’s early ones – the animal leans back in silent, hopeless protest. Precision modelling imparts some of Dik Ket’s solid weight. A Morandi-esque mix of awkward drawing and careful chiaroscuro is employed throughout; light fluctuating across the tabletop echoes his subtlety. Against this materiality, the animal, empty champagne bottle, and solitary lemon suggest a Surrealist “chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella.” Along the bottom, a soothing geometric pattern suggests the mysterious order explored by metaphysical painters de Chirico, Carra, and Morandi. But a loud, flippant pink brings the picture back from nostalgia to present-day irony.
In the same way New Objectivity, which impacted Freud’s realism, expressed composure despite Weimar Germany’s instability, O’Connor’s people show savvy contemporary vigilance. They occupy a headspace that masks the inner self but doesn’t quite rise to game face, communicating situational awareness – shades of Felix Nussbaum’s, without his dire contexts. In Self Portrait with no Beard, the artist captures himself looking closely while drawing, disclosing watchfulness but nothing intimate, despite proximity. His blocky head shape drolly meets the rectangle halfway.
Despite resemblance to Freud’s portrayals of repressed urges, the circumspect Matt admits even less. Compressed lips project a micro-expression of privacy the way a stranger nearby in a crowd does, with nothing personal in the recusal. The only bright note is a green rectangle on his eyeglasses, reflecting a distant window or screen he focuses, or spaces out, upon. Yesterday’s “hopeless little screen,” as Leonard Cohen put it, is today less a symbol of escapism from real life than facilitator of it, offering social, business, political, and intellectual forums; O’Connor’s infers cultural context without cynicism. The incomprehensible onslaught of visual stimulation screens emit is just a normal feature of daily life for the tuned-in, who tune out as needed.
Lucy’s aspect is similarly cautious, but greater openness to the unknown emerges from beneath the protection of a bulky overcoat. As in all O’Connor’s paintings, wobbly lines, scruffy texture, and generalized color play disarmingly against tonal acumen. The fun her cellophaned hair is having moves into her flesh tones, whose warmth advances against the cooler coat. She may lack the life experience to relate to the hardships Dix or Nussbaum describe, but her open eyes convey empathy.
Drop Cloth Table playfully juxtaposes the genres of landscape and still life. Norman Bryson explains how the former privileges the disembodied eye, while the latter triggers touch: “Instead of plunging vistas… and sovereign prospect of the eye, [still life] proposes a much closer space, centered on the body… The eye … reads for contour and volume [but] the instruments are the muscles of the arm and hand [which] register the texture of things inseparable from their weight.” Vicarious desire to examine and handle the table’s particularities is thwarted by the foreground’s moat-like emptiness and heavy wall of cloth. Rough brushwork seems to stumble into tonal accuracy. The tall table feels massive yet also seems to levitate; lapsed Catholic irreverence may account for its resemblance to an altar. Maybe it was actually that height, but casual perspective out the window, and the tabletop expanding rather than shrinking as it recedes, allow for the amusing possibility that it was stretched to adequately fill the canvas the painter had available. An absurd compositional proposition is turned into a fascinating painting that toys with the viewer’s instincts and curiosity.
Objects atop it are an unremarkable assortment dutifully spaced as though for display, like a third-rate wonder cabinet. It includes banalities a young child, for whom faraway tabletops are enigmatic realms, might find compelling – thorns, a struggling plant, a stiff glove, some playing cards, possibly filched dinner rolls, a key holding down a corner – as well as adult collectibles like an animal skull and a rifle. Beyond it, the landscape scene shows a neighbor’s house across the way with its lights on. Though its firing pin is responsibly disengaged, proximity of gun to window holds a slender potential for violence, insinuating American hypervigilance and isolationism.
The bold gaze and a limpid execution of Portrait of the Painter with Palette resembles Christian Schad’s portraits. Its traditional theme of artist at work falls in line behind Catharina Van Hemessen, Judith Leyster, Artemesia Gentileschi, Rembrandt, Zurbaran, Corot, Gauguin, Cezanne, Picasso, Otto Dix, Lovis Corinth, Kerry James Marshall and many more, expressing romantic ambition and historical continuity. The timelessness of Flemish portraiture blends with the earthy frankness of George de la Tour. A halo of tonal drama stresses the subject’s slightly doubtful but unflinching regard, perched atop a wide Marsden Hartley-like frame. The modernist flat body and palette stress the picture plane while the articulated thumb and canvas push spatial illusion. Like Marshall’s giant palettes or Guston’s ungainly, earnest forms. O’Connor’s ugly paint schmears, crudely unblended light, and ham-handed arm betray an undercurrent of humorous social commentary. We can conclude that despite the painting’s severity and third-person title, this painter probably isn’t a poser.
The hospitable A Bigger Table features things spread out like the late afternoon remnants of a yard sale. Its warped space merges elevation and plan into a generous view, its optimism recalling Richard Baker’s magic realism. In an isometric variation Guston often used, objects sit at an angle closer to eye level, while mounting the pitched table plane and painting surface like small hills across a medieval landscape or map. The aerial view articulates each thing as in a Roman mosaic – limp beach ball, lobster and similarly shaped loaf of bread, cut flowers, fruit, wrenches, an Egyptian statue, a small, gold-rimmed probably religious book, and a large cactus recalling those of early Freud and Morandi. Each has its own shadow direction in its own small territory, within an implied grid that hints at a higher designing power, as topographic tables or dioramas do.
A sickly succulent sits in front of the rhyming contours of a male torso resembling John Kane’s, and a beautifully articulated plastic gallon of water. The carefully placed, denim shirt may be tendered like an offering, but its blue recedes against the warm wood, as its fold defines another inaccessible foreground space. Like his portraits, things seem self-contained, however individually inviting, and keep their distance. We can pry, imagining each one’s existence, like Wallace Stevens’s “nothing that is not there and the nothing that is” – or back story, like Jonathan Winters’s animations. Though the painting’s expectant title and self-important size hint at the ambition of a Pieter Aersten bountiful still life with Biblical narrative, like the fenced-off table wedged into the rectangle, iconography is restrained by the earthbound and ordinary. Horizontal wood grain against fence verticals further compresses the arena. Ultimately, the image doesn’t surpass Bryson’s category of “rhopography… trivial objects, small wares, trifles… the unassuming material base of life that ‘importance’ constantly overlooks… [which] attends to the world ignored by the human impulse to create greatness… Narrative … is expelled… The human subject that it proposes and assumes is anonymous and creatural, cut off from splendor.” The sum of the its parts is an ironic take on aspiration. Sophisticated yet humble visions of curated experience, O’Connor’s tabletops are cornucopias of the reassuringly mundane. His paintings proclaim poetic composure in the face of stimulation overload, focusing on matters at hand.
“Kent O’Connor: Everywhere All at Once,” Mendes Wood DM, 47 Walker Street, New York, NY. Through August 5, 2023.
About the author: Painter and art writer Margaret McCann teaches at the Art Students League. She has shown her work at Antonia Jannone in Milan and been reviewed in La Repubblica, Corriere della Sera and Huffington Post. She edited The Figure (Skira/Rizzoli 2014) for the New York Academy of Art and has written reviews for Painters’ Table and Art New England.