Breadstuffs 51” x 54” 2009 oil on linen
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While surfing the web I recently ran across Dan O’Connor’s terrific paintings and wanted to know more about him and this intriguing work. He agreed to an email interview.
Larry Groff: Can you tell us a bit about your background, where did you study and what painters and painting has most influenced you?
Dan O’ Connor: I was born in Kentucky and grew up in the Greater Cincinnati Area. I just returned here about two years ago. I have found Cincinnati to have a really interesting painting tradition and, in my opinion, is a great place for young painters. We always have the paintings of Frank Duveneck looming over us. I received my BFA in painting and drawing from the University of Cincinnati in ‘07 and then went on for my MFA from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in ‘09. I have been fortunate to study with some great instructors, going back as far as high school. However, the instructor who had the most profound impact on the way I paint now would be Scott Noel. I worked closely with Scott for both years at the Academy. I credit him for really teaching me how to look; both at paintings and the potential held in the physical world for paintings. He also introduced me to some of the painters that influence my painting the most now, Edwin Dickinson, Charles Hawthorne, Lennart Anderson and many others.
LG) Please tell us something about your process in painting. For, instance, how did you go about making the bathroom tiles and wastebasket painting (“Waste”) from beginning to end? How much does working from observation play with your work?
DO) I think my process in painting could be described as somewhat erratic. I always paint from observation and I almost always paint on my feet. Recently I have been painting atop a ladder in my studio, climbing up and down to mix my colors. I whistle, talk to myself, talk to the model, move around a lot and must generally appear fairly agitated. I even announce the colors sometimes before I mix them. Anything to jumpstart the process, I guess. The painting, Waste, was made in grad school and proved to be a rather tumultuous exercise. I reworked the whole painting countless times trying to navigate my way through those tiles. I became obsessive about measuring their layout, but still struggled with the aerial perspective I was dealing with. The entire painting was made really to serve one moment within it, where the tiles were being faintly reflected on the front wall of the wastebasket. That painting is also an example of constructing or modifying the subject, which occasionally occurs in my work. I am typically careful about selecting what I paint and try to retain a degree of honesty in my observation of it. However, if I feel strongly enough about an idea, a moment, or abstraction, I will sometimes make modifications to the subject. The wastebasket did come from my own bathroom. I had just cut my hair and looked down at this somewhat repulsive collection in the trash, full of hair, toothpaste, dental floss and countless other bathroom detritus. I thought it could make a good subject, so I very carefully transported it from my apartment in West Philly, via the trolley, to the Academy, being incredibly careful not disturb the arrangement of the trash. I then went so far as to lay the tile myself on a piece of mdf in the corner of my studio. I then spent the next month trying to paint it. It was kind of strange experience investigating my own trash on a daily basis.
LG) If you walk into a very large group show of painters you’ve never heard of before, what work will be most likely to catch your eye and hold your interest? What type of work will you walk past without even looking?
DO) I think I am initially always drawn to strong abstract work when visiting shows or museums. As a painter, abstraction becomes pure pleasure. It is like looking at the world with all the superfluity stripped away and all that’s left is the moving construction of things. That is always going to hold my attention. Even the best of subjects can become tiresome, but good abstraction is always going to be fresh. Of course, I’m always going to be attracted to and on the lookout for great representational painting. But I think that comes from a certain wanton desire to know how to do it better, because I know that I always want it to be part of my own work in some capacity.
I try to keep a fairly open mind when looking at work, so there isn’t much I would immediately dismiss. I was just reading a Henry Miller book where he was talking about learning to paint watercolors and how when you are learning, everything becomes fodder for thought and has some potential interest, even commercial advertisements. He talks about sitting on the subway and simply devouring the folds of a shirt collar from a clothing ad on the wall. I try to keep that in mind when my eyes are open.
LG) What are you working on now?
DO) Right now I am trying to figure out how to perpetuate a life of painting. It was a pretty radical shift for me from graduate school to trying to be a painter and still having to make a living. I have been teaching for the past year which has helped open up large blocks of time for painting as well as providing a great deal of motivation to do so. But, I still occasionally have to work other jobs to get by.
The paintings continue to develop as their own constructions and dialogues. I’ve made a shift recently to larger scale figures, which has provided a great deal of excitement for me. I am continually trying to introduce new ideas or ways of seeing into the paintings. A few months ago, I read a little catalog from a Diebenkorn exhibit where he mentions learning about the importance of whimsy from the paintings of Matisse. This has proved to captivate me for a while. I’ve always thought on whimsy as a sort of heavy-handedness or awkwardness that permeates through some paintings, but have started to see it now as something that could potentially relate a real, palpable truth about vision. It seems to present itself in limitless ways; the way you hold your brush, apply paint, stand, look, question. This playful manner of observing, I think, speaks loudly about the painter and the subject, while still providing a satiated, fully resolved, believable painting. Fairfield Porter seemed to have it.
LG) Where can someone see your work? Any shows coming up in the near future?
DO) I recently setup a blog with some paintings on it: http://www.danieloconnorpaintings.blogspot.com/. Apart from that, you’ll have to come to my studio. I don’t have any shows coming up in the near future. Which hopefully will allow me time to get a large body of new paintings working.