Works
Overview

  John O’Connor’s painting breakthrough came, appropriately for an artist who is also a professor, in a University of Florida classroom. He was, as so often, looking at a blackboard. That was the breakthrough. “It was staring me in the face,” he told a TV interviewer. “The perfect vehicle for my art”. This was 1984 and the chalkboard paintings, O’Connor’s most ambitious and commanding suite of work, were underway the following year.

  O’Connor had begun making art over three decades before in Northern California. He was painting, and much impacted by the Bay Area realists, one of whom, Richard Diebenkorn, he got to know well. It was other California artists, such as Wayne Thiebaud, who steered him towards also having a teaching career. This took him to Ohio University in 1965 and to the University of Florida four years later.

  At this time O’Connor was making the paintings he described as Conceptual Realism, the work which developed into the Chalkboard Series. Here he shows a huge gift for rendering objects – a crumpled envelope, a scrap seemingly taped a canvas - with the finesse of a high-res photograph, making you itch to reach out and touch them. This faux work brings to my mind an observation by the French history painter, Paul Delaroche in 1839, after he was shown a daguerrotype, (a very early photograph), "From today painting is dead", he gloomed.

  Well, painters, of course, mostly followed the Impressionists, into making their practice thoroughly painterly, but a handful will confront photography, making ultra-realist work, amongst them the 19th century American maestros of trompe l’oeil, William Harnett and John Frederick Peto. O’Connor sees no likeness between this work and his own project, though, and rightly so. They, like such contemporary equivalents as the sculptors Duane Hanson and Ron Mueck, give viewers a Wow! moment, like a dazzling card trick, but the work then becomes a curiosity, inhabiting an eternal Now. What O’Connor does with these chalk boards is wholly different. The powdery smudges, the adds indicate history, whereas the diagrams, the notes point towards the future. But they are a painted surface, a simulacrum. Note that the artist O’Connor lists as the major influence on his work, that implacable foe of “retinal art”, Marcel Duchamp.

  A memory. In the early 70s I watched Joseph Beuys at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, scribbling and doodling in chalk onto small green oblong slates and chucking them to either side. It was what we all experienced at school, the blackboard as a visible thought process, sprouting diagrams, symbols, numerals, rubbed into cloudy white nothingness, and replaced by another system, equally evanescent.  

  O’Connor goes way further though, replicating the chalk boards as paintings. Such as Homage to Red Green, a scrawled-upon blackboard upon which are stuck post-its, a hockey stick, and a reproduction of the Josef Albers that gives the piece its name. Or The Thirteenth Element, a patterny green chalk board to which are stuck decals, a photograph, a dangling pine-cone. These details all being convincing paintwork, but John O’Connor is not just gaming us, he is targeting and questioning the nature of reality itself. - Anthony Haden-Guest

Video
Biography

John A. O’Connor, a practicing professional artist, was born in Twin Falls, Idaho in 1940. He studied art at Sacramento City College (with Greg Kondos and Wayne Thiebaud), California State University, Sacramento (with Fred Schmid), Mexico City College, D.F. (now University of the Americas-with John Golding), and the San Francisco Art Institute (with James Weeks). He received an AB with Honors ( 1961) and an MAA ( 1963) from the University of California, Davis (with Joseph Baird, Theophilus Brown, Roland Petersen, Wayne Thiebaud, and William T. Wiley).

He subsequently taught art at the University of California, Santa Barbara; Blake College, Valle de Bravo, Mexico; Ohio University, Athens; and at the University of Florida, Gainesville until 2005, where he became Professor of Art, Emeritus.

John has had 36 solo exhibitions of his paintings, including a number of retrospectives, and has participated in more than 200 group exhibitions. He has received numerous awards and honors including a National Endowment for the Arts/Southern Arts Federation Fellowship, and several State of Florida Individual Artist Fellowships. His work is included in a many public, university, college, corporate and private collections nationwide. Now halfway through his sixth decade producing paintings, drawings, and prints, he is continuing to explore new ideas, methods, and techniques.

Exhibitions