“The studio for me has always been a second bedroom of a regular home. I’ve never had what one thinks of as an “ARTIST’S STUDIO.” Once working in a suburb of Houston, Texas, I am now in the Los Angeles area. This studio is new to me. I have a piece in-progress that I started over a year ago. This piece was lugged (carefully) from Texas to California. It’s my version of HELL. The middle-aged, sweatsuit clad men I drew for nearly a decade were killed off a couple of years ago. They return clambering to exit their new terrifying and gruesome existence in Hell.”
“Joining them is a new group of people, these tiny robed figures. Possibly monks. They’re the little collaged people you see on my desk. They are glued one on top of the other one, and they form a sculptural element to this piece, which is very new to me. They look snake-skin-like while they climb on each other’s backs. They are forming towers that are reaching towards someplace better. Narrative work is always labyrinthine. I never imagined the men would make their way back to me, but after a very short few years without drawing them, I realized I need them. They’re my way of talking about the world. Through them, I find I can talk about anything. Except for procreation. Because I find that rather boring a subject. No offense to all you child-rearers out there.”
(Robyn’s HELL drawing (above) will be shown at her solo show in NYC at the Susan Inglett Gallery. These images are in-progress with several months of work ahead of it).
Robyn O’Neil (Omaha, Nebraska, 1977) lives and works in Los Angeles, California. Her work was included in the prestigious 2004 Whitney Biennial. O’Neil has been the featured artist in several solo museum exhibitions including a show of her most important works to date at The Des Moines Art Center in 2010, and a solo museum exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston, Texas. She is represented by Praz-Delavellade Gallery in Paris, France and Berlin, Germany, Susan Inglett Gallery in New York City, and Dunn and Brown Contemporary in Dallas, Texas. O’Neil is currently working on the production of THE TOWER, an opera she wrote while at Werner Herzog’s Rogue Film School in Los Angeles. She also received a grant with director Eoghan Kidney from the Irish Film Board for a film written and art directed by her entitled “WE, THE MASSES” which will premiere at the Galway Film Festival this summer.
FROM YOUR DESKS: How do you work?
ROBYN O’NEIL: Simply. All the time. With constant noise, whether that be cable television, satellite radio, or music. With medical tape on my ailing fingers. And without much interference.
The look of my men is 100% influenced by the look of the Heaven’s Gate cult member’s attire.
FYD: Why do you fight with organization? For me, it’s the thought of having nothing to do when things are too clean.
RO: I like that. I’ve never feared having nothing to do, I’ve prayed for it. his struggle towards ultimate organization is a simple matter of the fact I cannot NOT do something at all times. It’s a back and forth of making, drawing, cutting and then cleaning things up to make room to make, draw, cut again. That’s specifically related to the issue of my struggle to keep my desk cleaned up. But in general, fighting with organization is a matter of time. And time is no man’s friend. Especially not mine.
RO: It was just time to leave. I’d been in Houston almost a decade, and I’ve never lived anywhere that long. That felt scary to me. Too defined or fixed…I don’t take well to being anchored apparently. Seven years ago, I made the mistake of buying a house in Texas. The minute I became a homeowner, I felt severely imprisoned. Homeownership locks a person down, and unless one is living in their dream location on their dream block, I think buying a home is a really bad idea. I want to stay mobile and to feel free from ties. It reminds me of something Nabokov said when asked why he always lived in hotels. He said, “It simplifies postal matters, it eliminates the nuisance of private ownership, it confirms me in my favorite habit – the habit of freedom.”
FYD: You were reared Irish Catholic in Nebraska. Do your roots weave into your narratives?
RO: Definitely. In thinking about my Catholic background as I grow older, I realize how intensely personal and private it is as a religion. Marry that with its ritualistic and darker aspects, and you have my drawings pretty much laid out for you!
I show the horrors that exist when people en masse decide to just do as the others are doing.
The men I draw were originally based on my dad and his best friend Marty. They have a particular look that comforts me. Regular family guys who would kill for anyone they love. Men who love sports and play and TV. There’s a complexity to them. More than meets the eye. There’s a darkness that exists in these characters that is separate from my dad and his friends. This slant comes from the loss of individuality I see permeating that region and other places I have lived. The fear of breaking out, and the desire to just be normal. I show the horrors that exist when people en masse decide to just do as the others are doing.
FYD: Your men are stylish. Does anyone in the fashion world inspire their duds?
RO: I’ve never heard that before! The men are dressed all alike, everyone in basic black sweatsuits. They all wear Nike tennis shoes. And that’s it. I was asked by the New York Times to draw my men wearing Chanel (see below); that was a fantasy drag/murder scene in the woods, which was so much fun.
The look of my men is 100% influenced by the look of the Heaven’s Gate cult member’s attire, although I didn’t realize this fact until about a year into drawing. I developed these men as pawns to tell an end-of-the-world tale. I was obsessed with learning about Marshall Applewhite and the group’s beliefs. Heaven’s Gate committed mass suicide in 1997 and I didn’t start these drawings until 2000. The story of the group slowly worked itself into my subconscious. Initially, I drew the men in sweatsuits because that’s what my dad and his friends wore when not at work. It was perfect for me because I needed something that spoke to middle America. It needed to be generic, simple, and casual. And it needed to unify them.
75% conflict, 21% death, and 4% hope.
RO: The men and animals function very differently in my work. The animals are drawn naturalistically, beautifully. The men are drawn awkwardly and uncomfortably. I use my hand differently when drawing the men. I’m not as gentle as I am when drawing a bird or a buffalo. This is all set up to say, “Humans are not sure of their place here on earth. They’re tense and uneasy. Unnatural and too complicated. Animals, however, are aware and know what to do with themselves. They live gracefully and with clear purpose.”
FYD: In the film Flatliners, the little boy Billy (in the red hoodie) falls through tree branches. What goes on in your graphite world; any film references?
RO: There are all sorts of vague film references in my work from Bergman films to the original Karate Kid. Flatliners wasn’t a huge influence on me, but that scene feels like much of my work. That reminds me of a scene in the Omen II when Damien is playing ice hockey with his family and friends, and Damien’s evil powers cause one boy to drown. And it’s a terribly claustrophobic view of this kid trapped under the ice, but with a current pushing him further and further out. Instead of taking that scene and drawing a guy trapped under ice, I think about that current under the ice. Then somehow, I have the men appear to be moving/walking with an invisible current pushing them along, zombie-like…a current that causes them to walk off of the edge of a cliff, one by one.
FYD: Is there conflict?
RO: I’d say my work has contained this percentage: 75% conflict, 21% death, and 4% hope. And all percentage points with a confusing haze of humor and misery looming overhead.
FYD: Waves, birds, hurricanes. Do you believe in “global warming” meaning the landscape is sick?
RO: This series started full of trees, with a high mountainous horizon line. The land slowly proceeded to be devastated enough to become a low flatland with almost no life whatsoever. Everything ended with the ocean raging, covering what little was left of this world. This took about ten years.
The landscape was sick as a result of the anti-cautious actions of the men inhabiting it. It was a moral tale of what will happen if one does not pay attention. These men did not pay attention to their world, their landscape, or to one another. This lack of awareness causes severe destruction. Psychologically and globally. Formally speaking, I “set the stage” of each of these drawings emotively. A mountain-scape clearly makes a viewer feel differently than a desert, and I am of service to a particular concept within each and every piece. The world I drew told a tale of environmental destruction, I was also simply creating invented landscapes that would speak sympathetically to the story within each piece. Big world and inner world….all working together.