John O’Connor’s hallucinatory drawings look like mandalas for the digital age. They churn and roil with vivid colors and crisp lines that web together and keep one’s eye darting around. Loops and cycles, input and feedback—these structures and relationships are at the heart of O’Connor’s recent work.
O’Connor is a detail-oriented artist with a statistician’s love for systems and a satirist’s sense of humor. “The Machine and the Ghost,” his fifth solo exhibition at Pierogi, included oil paintings, large text-based drawings, a series of photographs and four sculptures. The works update the mind-body dualism of Descartes in a way that challenges the philosopher’s classic distinction. What counts as a mind or a body becomes increasingly difficult to define. Here, computer programs communicate like humans, and humans behave like rudimentary machines.
In the big and colorful text-based drawing Butterfly (2013), O’Connor offers a first-person tale of a self-medicating individual who ingests a cornucopia of food, booze and pills, each in an effort to counteract the effects of the previous substance. His thinking process both drives and is driven by his binge behavior, until his mind and body eventually shut down. On a formal level, O’Connor matches this duality with another, that between words and images. Brand names, like McDonald’s, New Balance and Smirnoff, appear throughout the story, and in such instances O’Connor has substituted the corporate emblems and logos for the words, creating a picture-poem comically packed with product placement.
In the graphite-and-colored-pencil Cleverbot II (2013), O’Connor records his attempts at dialogue with a web-based application called “Cleverbot.” In each instance, the conversation—which always begins, “Hello again. It’s John. Remember me?”—quickly degenerates to childish banter before ending abruptly. His fifth and final attempt brings the work full circle when he reminds the Cleverbot, who says they’ve never met, that they have met online. The Cleverbot, however, can’t remember.
O’Connor’s sculptures focus largely on the relationship of equivalents. Each of the four works comprises painted text on thin strips of illustration board that have been cut up and reconnected to form jagged loops. These delicate sculptures were suspended from the ceiling with transparent string, which made them look as if they were floating above the white pedestals placed below them. In Robin Hood (2013), O’Connor lists the names and fortunes of men who acquired super wealth, such as Andrew Carnegie, Jacob Astor and David Rockefeller. In Equals (2013), strings of numbers run along the front and back sides of the illustration board, presumably reaching the same value.
There is always a lot of information packed into O’Connor’s pictures. Data piles up on data through systemic processes that give the appearance of logic and order even when they obfuscate every connection. For an exhibition centered on a leitmotif of dualities, there has to be nonsense for there to be any sense at all.