Chicago Art Review

Robyn O’Neil @ Tony Wight by Steve Ruiz
September 28, 2009, 6:50 pm
Filed under: Chicago, Reviews

First some back story on Robyn O’Neil:

Robyn is a Houston all-star who, while not doing the media rounds, cranks out me-sized graphite drawings which may pass as illustrative, narrative, and serial, with one leading to the next in a giant comic book panel approach to story-telling. As the tale goes, a little drawing of a track-suited dude was the spark for the seven-year project, each drawing expanding on the mythology of the race of track-suited dudes and their trials and their tribulations and, with the 2007 execution of These final hours embrace at last; this is our ending, this is our past, their last moments too. The track-suited dudes were dead (long live the track-suited dudes), the end. What’s next?

For that answer we’ll need to cut to Tony Wight Gallery and On Sinking, their latest exhibition and O’Neil’s first or second substantial presentation of new works since killing all her characters.

Robyn O'Neil, Hurricane

Robyn O'Neil, Hurricane

The imagery picks up where it left off, at sea. Most works in this show feature the ocean and only the ocean, its strength visible and rendered in waves that ripple like muscle fiber, flexing and relaxing and tearing depending on the image. These landscapes or seascapes should be understood as abandoned, which they are in the sense that there aren’t any of the usual characters in view because (and here’s where the back story comes in) those characters are all dead as shit. They’re all pretty dramatic pictures of the arbitrary power of nature over man, the insignificance of man, etc, sort of, but not entirely, because there’s a problem and its a big one.

Robyn O'Neil, Almost Calm

Robyn O'Neil, Almost Calm

In trying to describe an apocalypse, and of a view of a totally abandoned landscape, the drawings suffer from an intractable element in the illustrative method which O’Neil uses. Simply put, when you describe a three-dimensional space, the drawings describe those areas visible to the viewer depending on his or her presence within the assumed space. Whether we are the artist or an imagined observer, the the narrative of the space assumes our existence. In short, the problem is that we’re still here.

Robyn O'Neil, A Song of So Many Beginnings

Robyn O'Neil, A Song of So Many Beginnings

If we’re still here, then we’re certainly not a track-suited dude, and if we’re not one of them, then it follows that we’ve just been looking in on their experiences like a kid with an ant farm. Sure, you may have learned a life lesson or two about the ultimate meaninglessness of existence and the purposelessness of labor in the face of inevitable and total mortality, but when the ants all die, you throw out the farm or start the whole cruel mess over again. These works provide an epilogue for her past narrative more than show a new direction or reading for her work, except perhaps to suggest that O’Neil just really likes drawing the ocean and big landscapes and would probably gladly continue doing so even without a narrative structure.

Robyn O'Neil, For the Next Breath

Robyn O'Neil, For the Next Breath

These post-track-suited-dudes drawings only occupy about half of the show, however. The rest is the kind of interesting, gestational work I would expect to see when starting a new body of work. The largest of them, For the Next Breath leans on scale the artist’s detailed working method to create a kind of landscape on the three-quarters-reversed view of an anonymous man’s head. The size and tight, meticulous rendering of the hair suggest a physical proximity which balance large, deep margins of untreated surface. The two other pieces in this theme, To the Left and Occurrence feature three other men, similar but not identical. As a total break from landscape and drawn narrative (the titles still suggest a story), these show O’Neil reaching into the toolbox of drawing, testing rhythm and scale as main thrusts, and finding some success. The Dismantled, and Turbulent Beliefs, while enjoyable, could even be considered one-offs.

Robyn O'Neil, The Dismantled

Robyn O'Neil, The Dismantled

In total, On Sinking is not the cohesive show that one might expect from Robyn O’Neil. While there are some strong pieces, the work can best be seen as evidence of a transition, suggestions of things to come. If you’ve followed O’Neil’s career, it may even be a popcorn and soda glimpse of O’Neil’s struggle to reinvent, that great and necessary fight which, while it may produce a few bad drawings, really separates the career artist from the post-grad star child. Love the work or not – it makes for a good exhibition.

I give it a:


Robyn O’Neil‘s On Sinking opened on Friday, September 11th and will run through Saturday, October 31st @ Tony Wight Gallery, 119 N. Peoria.

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[…] Melissa Oresky (see below), and Robyn O’Neil (also at Tony Wight and recently reviewed here), this new exhibition at College of Dupage’s Gahlberg Gallery is so good I’d post it […]

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[…] by Robyn O’Neil (who was at the time showing across the hall at Tony Wight Gallery, reviewed here). However, while O’Neil’s Masses and masses rove a darkened pool; never is there […]

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