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Robyn O’Neil: Origins of the universe


Wunderkind artist Robyn O’Neil (at the Des Moines Art Center through May 23) stalks both high and low culture for stimulation.

“I read the classics. Except for Cormac McCarthy, that’s about all I read. Walt Whitman, Nabokov, I just finished the complete Proust thing,” she said, before admitting a rather different influence.

“I love bad TV. I have it on all the time while I work,” she revealed, adding that her alter ego is a character from “Roseanne.”

“Darlene Connor is my hero. We’re virtually the same age, grew up together,” O’Neil explained.

The Texan resembles Roseanne’s younger daughter in many ways. Both grew up in “average Middle American households” and were usually the smartest person in whatever room they occupied. Both depended upon dark humor to muddle through their teenage years with “jerk” boyfriends, and both went off to art school in Chicago only to discover they missed their fathers terribly. Had she been real, Darlene might have created the darkly humorous universe that O’Neil etched “obsessively” over seven years with the nothing more than the smallest lead pencil and the largest commercial paper. That universe is populated by funny little men in tracksuits and sneakers, modeled after the death shrouds of the Heaven’s Gate suicide cult. Her men behave badly and not so badly, balancing acts of cruelty and brotherhood.

O’Neil gives cynical titles to her works, like “Everything that stands will be at odds with its neighbor and everything that falls will perish without grace.” Such titles were grave enough that Artforum Magazine attributed them to the “Book of Revelations.”

“That was flattering. Someone thought something I wrote sounded Biblical,” she said, before revealing that Goya’s “Disasters of War” were an inspiration for her vision.

“Who doesn’t love that?” she asked.

In O’Neil’s drawings, men are always secondary to Mother Nature. Trees, owls, bison, dogs and horses cast shadows in some works in which her soulless men do not. The latter indeed die without grace, while her trees perish in magnificent splendor and her talon-bearing oceans and skies reveal superhuman countenances.

Her series concludes dramatically with the end of mankind.

“That was my intention from the beginning. That’s why I never drew a woman, to remove their hope of procreation,” she explained.

Her final survivor is last seen desperately clinging to a tightrope above a sea of wrath. O’Neil thought his fate was obvious.

“One sweet old lady in Dallas told me that she believed he was going to climb right on up to heaven. That’s not how I see it,” she said.

Two drawings in the Art Center show portend O’Neil’s future. One is a take on Caspar David Friedrich’s depiction of a poem by Goethe, the super ego of Romanticism and the original reconciler of high and low cultures. The other places her doomed tribe within the medieval legend of Magonia — a mysterious place beyond the clouds that has inspired true believers in predetermination, utopia and UFO sightings. O’Neil says she’s putting her pencil down to work on an opera about that footnote to France’s Dark Ages. She brought her composer to Des Moines — Chicago singer-songwriter Daniel Knox who shares style with Tom Waits, a view point with Randy Newman and a first name with Darlene Connor’s dad. O’Neil said she’d never even listened to an opera until she was urged to write one about Magonia, by Werner Herzog. But, that’s another story in Robyn O’Neil’s brilliant career.

Touts: From Our Hands won the Niche Award for the nation’s best retail art stores… Chris Vance’s new exhibition opened at Moberg Gallery after the artist’s smash debut in Denver, where 22 of his paintings sold on the opening weekend at 44T Art Space… Studio 3 opened on the top floor of Ingersoll’s Adio Building with therapeutic arts and learning opportunities. CV

Caption: Robyn O’Neil’s work will be on display at the Des Moines Art Center through May 23.

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