Piper O’Neill created a netherworld of carnival paraphernalia in her third solo show at Winston Wächter since 2011. Consisting mainly of wall-hung sculptural assemblages and two-dimensional mixed-medium compositions, the works on view (all 2013) centered on the painted chalkware figures that were given out as prizes at fairs during the Depression. The 35-year-old artist studied animation at Parsons School of Design in New York and filmmaking at the University of Washington in Seattle, and has consistently explored kitsch imagery and themes of nostalgia in her work.
The assemblages in the show fell into two series. Each of the six works in “Don’t Fence Me In” consists of a bronze reproduction of a Lone Ranger-esque chalkware cowboy wearing an eye mask, placed on a shelf before a backdrop of wallpaper created by O’Neill. “Don’t Fence Me In, Chrome” presents versions of these same assemblages, with the bronze figures plated in chrome. The sculptural vignettes evoke glimpses of children’s bedrooms from yesteryear: wallpaper motifs of cowboys and pistols suggest conventional decor of boys’ rooms, while those of kissing rabbits and flowers imply girls’ rooms, perhaps those of young Annie Oakley fans, given the gunslinger figures. Arranged in two rows on the gallery walls, the assemblages together resembled a shooting gallery at a county fair or a display in a museum of Americana. The masked cowboy reappeared in a large neon sign that, as though advertising a business, features the phrase “The Lone Stranger” above a bouquet of flowers with the caption “For-Get-Me-Not.”
Made on layers of dress-pattern tissue, and measuring between four and five feet high, the works on paper portray a range of chalkware prizes, from animals to Kewpie dolls to an American Indian chief. White-ink designs of stars, flowers and insects surround the figures, giving them a mysterious aura, while scratched lines, torn paper edges and fading colors enhance the antique quality of the imagery. The type of chalkware objects O’Neill depicts were often originally fabricated as kitchen-string holders, and indeed Dale’s String Pulls features four heads—those of a calf, a rabbit, an elephant and a little girl—with actual string emerging from their mouths, hanging down in front of the flat composition.
The Kewpie dolls shown in Majorette and Pageant Winner are dressed in attire appropriate to their title roles and are rendered against backgrounds of, respectively, mint green and lavender. The dolls seem to have a tenderness or warmth to them, but their wide, blank eyes—rendered so as not to meet the viewer’s gaze—give them a disturbing quality, highlighting their nature as manufactured kitsch crafted to elicit certain emotions in consumers. Here, as throughout the show, visitors found themselves recalling Clement Greenberg’s famous 1939 essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” where he equates kitsch to “vicarious experience and faked sensations.” O’Neill’s intelligent reframing and sensitive material handling, however, elevates her work above the ersatz objects it portrays.