Interview with Paul S O’Connor

Paperbag: Tell us more about your process. Your paintings morph through various stages. Which is the most exciting one?

Paul S O’Connor: When I’m making paintings, I never have an end goal in mind. I’ll have the kernel or framework of an idea that I work out in Photoshop, but where it goes from there is all a cycle of action and revision. In other words, I spend a lot of time looking at what’s been laid out and trying to figure out where to go from there. It’s kind of like having a set of bad driving directions; you start with a basic map, but it’s a little confusing, not completely clear and you get lost a lot. Yet, as you get closer and closer to your destination, things start to fall into place faster and faster and everything seems to make sense. Of course, of all the stages I’m always most excited by the final stage, cause it’s the point at which I’m satisfied with everything and don’t need to add or subtract anything. But I think it’s great to have documentation of various dead ends and false starts in a piece because you can go back and see some exciting ideas that didn’t necessarily pan out for that piece but might be appropriate for something else.

Prints though are a different story…. Those I plan out almost entirely, start to finish, to streamline the process of making them. I really enjoy the interplay between the two mediums. If one mode of working is feeling a little stale, I can always switch gears and give my brain a break. It keeps things fresh and the modes of working inform each other. Sorry, I don’t know why I’m using so many car metaphors…

PB: What are some of your most recent influences, direct or otherwise?

POC: I really don’t think of ideas (aesthetic or otherwise) in terms of one artist influencing another. That sort of phrasing implies a kind of rigid, anachronistic, linear history of art that doesn’t exist, but’s been propagated by tradition or habit or laziness or… something. Contemporary artists are in a continuous dialogue with artists of the past; it’s not a one-way street.

Gustav Klimt, "Portrait of Mada Primavesi" 1921

Ideas from old works may inform current works, but contemporary art has the ability to redefine or recontextualize the ideas of the past, changing the circumstances in which current audiences view artworks from another period. In the end, all artists are working in the present, with a spectrum of objects and visual ideas to draw ideas from. Everyone borrows, and the best artists steal, but I think that it’s unhealthy to reduce an artist’s ideas by giving ownership to a past artist who was working within the same framework. This is true for Caravaggio, Picasso, or Koons, or myself….
It’s better to look at art outside of the structure of a timeline, and more like a continuing conversation of ideas. If you like Expressionism and want to explore that, go for it! You don’t have a debt to Kokoschka or De Kooning; you’ve just been listening to what they’ve been saying and now you’re adding your two cents to the Expressionist conversation. Your ideas impact the past as much as past works have influenced you, so I think it’s better to have a broader discussion about the current ideas and conversations that you share with other artists (like the ideas that all Expressionist share), rather than a backwards looking, ideological genealogy of sorts. (Expressionism begat Abstract Expressionism begat Neo-Expressionism begat Post Neo Avant AbEx, and so on until you run out of clever add-ons.)

Robert Rauschenberg, "Skyway" 1964


That said, my work is focused on exploring ideas of the graphic line, but also pattern, contrasts of space (flatness mixed with illusionary space mixed with literal space), acknowledgment of materials, and the juxtaposition of pictograms to create a narrative through subjective associations. Lots of artists have tackled these ideas, but some of the best examples would be some of Matisse’s earlier paintings, Gustav Klimt’s portraits, and Rauschenberg’s screen print paintings.

Also, my work is appropriative by nature, so I can’t dismiss the relevance of the coloring books, medical diagrams, patent diagrams, and other linear images that I take from literally and in terms of diagrammatical compositions.

PB: Your artwork features non-rectangular canvasses. What is your relationship to the shape of what you create?

POC: In part, the shapes of my work are derived from the collaged compositions. While I work digitally, the process is more or less the same… Instead of cutting and pasting, I Ctrl-X and Ctrl-V to pretty much the same ends. Digital collage though allows for a little bit more control and definitiveness. In Photoshop, you have the capability for infinite expansion of the canvas, which allows for the contours of the composition to grow and define themselves, without the restrictions of tangible mediums.

Henri Matisse, "The Piano Lesson" 1916


Also, I think that the self-defining shapes reiterate the tangibility (the very physicalness) of the works. Rectilinear work always recalls a window, of looking THROUGH something instead of AT something. The practice of framing accentuates this (window frame, picture frame, ya dig?). A rectangle segregates itself as something separate from its environment, which is not the reality of the art object. An artwork with a cut out shape is inseparable from its environment; it draws attention to its surroundings, its background, its very “objectness”, instead of trying to remove itself into a fantasy of depiction, a fantastical denial of what the object actually is…

Yeah, and for some reason, the rectangle is the de facto shape of most artworks; but that’s stupid because you’re making something from scratch, and you don’t have those sorts of arbitrary restrictions. You can make anything you want! So often, I think that a rectangle is a non-choice; it’s an element or mode of composition that the unwitting artist is almost ignorant to. The traditions or pretensions of the art world insist upon a rectangle, but that doesn’t mean that you should develop your works by those standards. The piece should be telling you what it needs, where it needs to go, what it needs to be… not to be constrained by habit or expectation. These elements are important for an artist to consider because, in the end, the object and concept are inseparable, and (to the best of one’s ability) nothing tangible or ideological should be left unconsidered.

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