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Issue 55 November-December 2000 RSS

Michael O’Conner

Temporary Services, Chicago, USA

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Michael O’Conner’s drawings look like a series of lost, cartoon stills from golden-age Hollywood genre films discovered on an abandoned back-lot and put on display. Each fantasy-driven image appears to be a fragment of a larger thematic narrative extracted from jungle films, Westerns, pseudo-French Revolution musicals, Civil War films or ‘Lil Rascals’ in their skivvies. But this is a Hollywood from a parallel universe, where pre-pubescent boys instead of women are the currency of exchange and the punishment for transgressing proper codes of behaviour is public execution. There is a glaring absence of technology in this land where children and adults serve alternately as victims and perpetrators. Some of the drawings, which are made with a ball-point pen on paper, seem to float in a present-day universe, hovering, but not set, in contemporary reality. Displays of power usually end in exhausted horseplay and light-hearted wrestling, although in the period and pseudo-anthropological pieces authority is enacted via more murderous vignettes.

The deceptive cheerfulness of O’Conner’s work recalls graphic illustration from the first half of the 20th century. The responses of some of the characters who inhabit the drawings towards impromptu displays of authority range from horror to gleeful fascination to disinterest; some gawk and giggle, some refuse to be distracted from their errands and simply carry on. Like curious ambulance chasers, bystanders gaze at the disciplinary torture and/or dying breath of a boy, the outline of erections beneath undergarments and loincloths made teasingly visible.

What remains invisible within this fantastical carceral continuum remains a mystery. The question of ‘what did these kids do to deserve their bloody fate?’ becomes ‘what’s the artist in for?’. The people in this world function within a closed system of arbitrary violence which regulates and contains them, just as O’Conner bides his time drawing while serving his sentence in the Federal Prison System of California. It’s no small feat to intelligently present such work in Chicago, where the fascination with outsider (or in this case insider) art has sustained many galleries since the Imagists celebrated and incorporated similar whimsical imagery into their works of the late 1960s. Key to such consumption is a sentiment promoted since the Romantic period which holds that truth is only perceptible to the marginalised. According to this notion, which is steeped in a pining for authenticity, individuals separated from mainstream society are the only people capable of maintaining the critical distance necessary to perceive and portray culture as it truly is. That they produce work without an intended audience or market invites the incorrect assumption that they, and their artistic production, are free from the cultural coding embedded in the rest of us. Accompanying presentations of these products of inner toil are long biographies which imbue the artists with the necessary anecdotal information to diagnose them as being truly separate from our world.

Temporary Services, a non-commercial space run by a collective of four artists, has been showing a cross-section of work in Chicago for three years. They decided to withhold information about O’Conner’s conviction (which he didn’t volunteer, but it could be easily obtained from the prison) to highlight the narratives in his work as opposed to his personal history. But whether this gesture was one of merit or a device of intrigue is open to debate. I was left wondering whether O’Conner was in for drug possession or child molestation - would my enjoyment of the work be altered if I discovered he was being punished for the actions from which the drawings might stem?

Incarceration in the United States is booming. With each prison constructed in towns which need an economic boost, the label of convict becomes less unique. But whether you’re on a desert island, crazier than a loon or otherwise separate from society, you won’t escape being written with the defining ink of disciplinary mechanisms. O’Conner is not apart from the law, he feels it every day, but the nature of this display leaves it up to the viewer to decide whether or not a fascination for his drawings is also punishable by our internalised enforcement system.

Carol Jackson

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First published in
Issue 55, November-December 2000

by Carol Jackson

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