Text by Ingrid Lyons
‘Not everything is as it seems, and not everything that seems is. Between being and seeming there is always a point of agreement, as if being and seeming were two inclined planes that converge and become one’.
― José Saramago, Blindness (1995)
In Luminous Gatherings, William O’Neill dedicates a meticulously considered, and sharply honed painterly skill in the depiction of a selection of conceptually elusive objects. These objects appear again and again, shifting in subtly varying compositional arrangements. Bananas, fine china, vintage electronics, old and outmoded equipment, a fake plant, yellow peppers: an array of quotidian items share the canvas as signifiers in a series of dramatic groupings. In his paintings, O’Neill merges solemnity and whim in a manner that often conjures a sense of absurdity and in turn his paintings come across quite witty despite their seemingly stark visuality.
Afternoon Convergence, for example,features a vintage, art deco style coffee pot of the kind that you might come across in a Dublin charity shop. Its design and motifs are both exotic and familiar looking. Perhaps they were once abundant due to their popularity as wedding gifts or that they were de rigueur in Clerys & Co or Switzers. We might think of the good china, occupying the back of a cupboard for decades – too precious to be used in daily life and therefore condemned to obsolescence through lack of use. A pineapple, a squash and two melons also feature, alluding the globalised supply chains that enable seasonally disparate produce from distant lands to occupy the same table at the same time. And within the pattern of a tablecloth, a fig and fig leaf motif recalls the history of fruit and vegetable related symbolism in Western art.
Though these paintings initially appear direct, candid and forthright they begin to divulge contradictions, anomalies and inconsistencies after time spent looking. O’Neill’s paintings are charged and strange, bonkers and a bit fruity. He makes use of cinematic principles of Mise en scène and colour grading to set the tone and create an atmosphere.
Assembled at Dusk presents an arrangement of objects in more dramatic lighting. Curves and angles are expressed with sharper contrast, colours are brilliant and the shape of the items, more defined. However, in this ostensibly hyper-real representation, there are playful deviations – the glass jug, for example exhibits a series of convincing yet nonsensical painterly flourishes. And this glass jug recurs as a motif throughout the exhibition reaffirming it as a deliberate device within the paintings. O’Neill utilises this strategy to demonstrate slippages between observation, perception and understanding. Within the paintings he notes paradoxes in the representation and reception of visual information and defers to earnest objectivity in celebrating this dynamic. Luminous Gatherings proffers a methodical, patient and labour intensive application of whimsical ideas. And this elicits a more involved consideration of the objects we are looking at in these paintings.
Several of the compositions picture obsolete analogue electronics and these items invite a consideration of their history and dwindling relevance. We might consider the volatile antennas or sensitive dials on Television sets of the 80s and 90s, or the lock and key security of pre-digital filing cabinets. Cluster(TV, Kettle, Filing Cabinet & Radio) considers not just the obsoletion of objects but the anachronistic quality of textures and aesthetics too. Within his paintings, O’Neill attends to the surface quality of the objects he paints to such a degree, that the decade of each item is discernible. In this painting it is evident that two items are genuinely vintage and two are vintage replica, emulating the retro look.
Many of the objects are masquerading in one way or another, some items within the paintings appear to reference other versions of themselves through mimicry. There’s real fruit and fake fruit, vintage style and genuinely vintage electronics and in Night-Time Imposter, the valise is painted so well – so articulately, we can tell that it is faux leather. In this way O’Neill introduces a meditation on superficiality.
This meditation is deepened in Candelabra, where we see a perplexing amalgamation of descriptors. Natural light from candle flames contribute to a warm and welcoming light which is in turn negated by the harsh lighting of a spotlight, projecting a shadow on the wall behind. But this mingling of contradictory effects is bewildering, and it is a particularly enigmatic painting. Within this painting, O’Neill reaffirms the candelabra as the centrepiece, the focal point in the contemplation of parody.
In Luminous Gatherings, O’Neill considers the concept of mīmēsis, an ancient Greek idea associated with Plato – who contrasted mimesis, or imitation, with diegesis or narrative and plot. In this exhibition, O’Neill incorporates references to mimesis, alongside references to familiar, everyday objects to make paintings that are both elusive and engaging.