On the occasion of the artist’s new exhibit, Flannel Tongue, which will be on view at Pierogi 2000 from Sept. 6 to Oct. 6, 2008, the painter Eve Aschheim talked with John O’Connor in his apartment/studio in Queens about his life and work.
Eve Aschheim (Rail): Would you talk about the new piece, based on your landlord attempting to predict the winning lottery numbers?
John O’Connor: It’s made of individual pieces of graph paper filled with lottery numbers that I found at my landlord’s place. He records the winning numbers each day, in different ways on different sheets, trying to understand the patterns and predict the numbers that will occur next. He’s been doing it since I’ve been living here, 7 years. He does this because he is curious, but doesn’t actually play the lottery. I took a stack of them because he throws them away. In order to understand the patterns, I started to color code them.
Rail: Well, it’s either brilliant or crackpot or both.
O’Connor: Exactly. I don’t think he can predict anything with certainty but he did predict the winning numbers once. His system isn’t complex, but he has a compulsion to do this thing.
Rail: You’d think someone could come up with a system on the computer, but not manually.
O’Connor: I like that it was a day-by-day thing, like a ritual. I related to that, because, as a kid, my family played the lottery every day. When I got my first computer, at ten, I made up a simple program to generate random numbers. I thought, maybe, that because I made the program it would come up with winning numbers, special numbers that I could play the lottery with. My family played them for a while, but never won. While the lottery numbers are actually random, they always feel personal—as if my random numbers are different from yours, special.
Rail: You used winning lottery numbers to generate other pieces in the past?
O’Connor: Yes, several, and the new one “Pay to Play” will be in the show. In that drawing, I recorded the winning numbers in New York in 2007. I took the last winning number of that year and used the last 5 digits as a zip code, which led me to a different state, and I recorded the winning numbers in that state. The winning numbers formed this colorful thing—shape–which was also a map connecting different places, and leading finally to the people who had played them.
Rail: It’s brilliant. When did you first use the lottery?
O’Connor: I first started using it in 2000 while at Skowhegan. I was doing a lot of chance-based work and at a certain point I ran out of ideas, and lost interest in chance as a guiding idea. The next thing I turned to was the lottery because it was really personal. I had almost a mystical belief that those numbers are special.
Rail: What was the evolution of your use of chance, abstraction and conceptual processes?
O’Connor: In high school I was doing pen and ink drawings with lots of detail, very labor intensive. They could take a year to make. In college I saw my first abstract painting in an art history class. I didn’t know what abstract painting was, and didn’t understand how or why someone would make something like that. I started making my own paintings to figure out what abstraction was about. I was excited by it because it was unlike anything that I’d seen.
Rail: What college was that?
O’Connor: Westfield State College, a small state school where I grew up, in Massachusetts. I graduated from there in ’95. For a few years after, I played drums in a band. I tried to make art, but I didn’t know what to do and had run out of ideas—my work was really static. I felt isolated there, so I went to The Vermont Studio Center in ’97. It was the first time I met real artists working for a living and I also started to look at different types of art. In Vermont I was painting abstractly—textured simple shapes—with many paint layers.
There was one night in The Studio Center, when I painted this red square, kind of rounded like a TV screen. It was awful, I thought, “What was the point of making this thing?” It was a shape that I had no real connection to. I had been looking at stuff… I love diagrams and things that look casual and unintentionally interesting, like indecipherable notes, scrawls that came from somewhere that wasn’t an art place. So, I covered the red square with white paint and I walked over to the gas station that’s about fifteen minutes away.
Rail: Sure, I know that place.
O’Connor: I bought a big bag of chips, a huge coke and thought “This is it, I don’t know what to do, I can’t do anything that’s my own.” I felt like if I were an alcoholic I’d be drinking, but I came back and ate the bag of chips, drank the coke, and thought “Oh man, I gotta get outta here.”
O’Connor: So I thought before I left I should just try to draw a little something on this piece. The paint had dried, but not completely, because I’d only been gone a little while, so it had a film. I drew this weird little circular squiggly thing and it tore through some of the paint and showed a little bit of the underpainting, but it also drew on top. It was in between a diagram and something you just draw. It was really simple and quick; it took half a minute. I wasn’t really thinking about it. I tricked myself by doing this thing and I loved it. I thought, “this is it!” It looked almost ghost-like. You couldn’t really tell what the form was; it didn’t really have a defined shape. I loved that painting. So I spent the rest of my time in Vermont trying to figure out how to recreate that moment.
I calculated how long it took me to walk to the store and eat the chips. I thought, “Okay if I use the same paint and do the same thing, can I make this same effect happen again?” I set everything up in the studio and walked out to the store and did the same thing. I tried, but I couldn’t get it right; the conditions weren’t perfect. When I went back to Massachusetts I did the same thing. I would set my alarm and get up in the middle of the night to do it again. I was obsessed with making this ridiculous shape. It was my attempt to get back to that moment to figure out exactly it happened so spontaneously—it was impossible, but that’s my personality. I eventually went to Pratt graduate school and saw a book of prints by John Cage, and thought “Wow, these compositions!”—the way they looked—unbalanced and that random color —was something I wanted to get in my own work.
Rail: What do you mean?
O’Connor: The accumulation of his marks came together in ways I would never do intentionally. I was also interested in chaos theory. I started to use chance as a way to trick myself into doing something I couldn’t control.
Rail: Go on.
O’Connor: When I started the chance-based stuff, I wasn’t as rigorous as Cage. I would do something chance-based or random and I’d change it, respond to it. I saw myself as in between—being an abstract painter but using chance as a device, but not for the same reasons as Cage.
Rail: You’re doing the opposite of Cage, because you couldn’t let go. Cage took chance to mean one thing, acceptance of everything, but for you it was a chance at the lottery, an ideal moment of reality. When you were measuring how long it took to get the chips, did you end up using those measurements in any pieces?
O’Connor: No I didn’t even keep track of the actual measurements. The information wasn’t important, it was the result.
Rail: Because your work does deal with issues of data collection and management, sorting, organizing, charting…
O’Connor: Yeah, I know. I think it kind of started at that point. I didn’t use it directly. I was trying to recreate that moment, but I couldn’t.
At a certain point I started to incorporate the process into the actual pieces. I ran out of ideas again at Skowhegan in 2000. I started to count the number of hairs that fell out in the shower, or how many steps it took to walk somewhere. I didn’t feel engaged with the more serious, purely abstract paintings I was making.
Rail: Do you know Kenny Goldsmith’s work? He records everything. There’s a book called Fidgets, documenting every bodily movement he had during a day.
O’Connor: I’ll have to look at that. Around that time I discovered Alfred Jensen’s work, which I liked a lot, because I couldn’t understand it. He was important for me. .
Rail: Like you, Jensen has a grid, with numbers, a code. His forms a mystical numerology, but yours has skepticism—the system leads to absurdity. What about Paul Laffoley?
O’Connor: I discovered Laffoley at Skowhegan and was amazed by him.
Rail: Were you interested in Outsider art?
O’Connor: Yeah, Outsider art has always been interesting for me because it is also tied in to the stuff that wasn’t even outsider art, marks I would see, or some kind of scribble written down somewhere, not intentionally aesthetic.
Rail: The unselfconscious, inadvertent, and accidental.
O’Connor: Yeah. I was drawn to that stuff, but I didn’t know how to turn that into something.
Rail: Which Outsider artists? Chris Hipkiss? Adolf Wolfli? Bill Traylor?
O’Connor: I love their work. I also like Daniel Johnston, Martin Ramirez, Judith Scott, Richard Nisbett... It’s their ability, compulsion, passion to follow a personal logic with complete conviction. I just discovered Country McCody. His album covers are pretty great.
Rail: Did you look at Mark Lombardi?
Rail: Did women artists engaged with the body, such as Kiki Smith and Janine Antoni, influence you?
O’Connor: Janine Antoni was a visiting artist at Skowhegan and did a studio visit with me. She reacted strongly against the chance work, but encouraged me to explore the personal ideas. Tom Nozkowski came too. I loved his work, but at the same time I liked Lombardi. I wanted to find a way to bring all three together—the body, abstraction and language.
Rail: Tom has lot of rules informing his process, even though it might not be apparent. It’s now clear the pervasive effect feminism had in freeing up the possibilities for male artists. Antoni took the negative shape of the body and turned it into an object or almost a statistic.
O’Connor: Yeah. I’d seen her work before and then she gave a talk at Skowhegan that influenced me. At that time I didn’t talk about many of the really personal ideas in my work because it was embarrassing. The body was an important thing; it became more of my subject. As a kid I had issues with weight, and kept track of my weight for years.
Rail: Women can relate to that.
O’Connor: The whole counting thing, I love to eat chips. As a kid, I wanted to lose weight, and I thought my biggest problem was eating chips. [laughing] I tried to time myself, less time instead of less portion. Then I could eat what I wanted, just in a limited time. So I would sit in front of the TV and say “Okay I can eat chips for five minutes”. I would get to four minutes and give myself an extra two. It really didn’t work, that timed diet. I was 12 or 13.
Rail: You seem preoccupied with the body—its limitations, imperfections and idiosyncrasies. Your subjects have included talking in your sleep and memory loss.
O’Connor: Yeah, those are big topics. They’re connected to each other. I’ve always been forgetful and have a chain wallet so I can’t lose it. In the late ’90s, my stepmother had Alzheimer’s, so the idea of memory loss became more serious. I saw the disease progress, a bizarre thing to witness. It started out with her just being forgetful. I started researching memory studies, the idea of false memories, how memory will fade over time, how it changes. That stuff was intriguing as a way of forming a different kind of reality. In one study Ebbinghaus charted how one could not remember random information over time.
So, I did this drawing where I would draw a shape, then close my eyes, time myself, try to remember that shape, and try to redraw again and again. The loss of memory became this thing that grew and built; it was formed into a shape, into something that you could see—it was form and color —and everything.
The language part of it—when my stepmother was moving through the disease she’d say things that we didn’t know how to react to… fragments of thoughts, she’d swear, she’d laugh. Her mind was trying to connect itself, involve itself. The only way we could understand anything was through her words. Whatever phrases popped out would give us an idea of her thoughts, maybe something from her past; time was all mixed up.
So I was thinking about her Alzheimer’s mainly in terms of language. Earlier I had recorded myself talking in my sleep. I listened to the tapes and noticed a weird similarity to Alzheimer’s. I would say things in my sleep that were bizarre, foreign to me, but might give insight into what happens in the brain at night. The two things came together at the same time; the patterns of my sleep talk could kind of relate to memory loss and the fragments of language I heard from my stepmother.
Rail: You are mapping the workings of the unconscious, and trying to find order in it.
O’Connor: I guess so. This little drawing is based on a Freud text “Determinism, Chance and Superstitious Belief.”
Rail: You invent systems that try to make logical things that are actually illogical and out of control…But then your systems end up being illogical too.
Rail: The drawings have an amorphous out of control quality, little shapes getting lost in big looming ones. Also cataclysmic events. You did a large drawing that charts earthquakes and wars. In the end the chart shows some absurdity. You are a statistician of the absurd.
O’Connor: Yes. [Laughs] I don’t think it’s possible in a drawing to predict or show any kind of literal connection between wars and earthquakes, but I do think there is some sort of rhythm or pattern to the amount of experiences in a lifetime.
Rail: How much of your plan is predetermined?
O’Connor: I don’t really plan much ahead of time. I usually start out with one element, a shape maybe. Sometimes I have an idea of where the work will go, but it almost never goes there. I don’t know how long it will take, when it will be finished or what it will end up looking like, but I like to let things happen. The final work is an accumulation of small events, missteps, or changes of direction, recorded over time.
Rail: How long does it take to finish a large drawing?
O’Connor: From a month to a couple of years.
Rail: How do the smaller drawings relate to works that are 6 feet or larger?
O’Connor: The smaller drawings are experimental. I try out ideas and then rework them in the larger ones, changing the process to enhance the image.
Rail: Why did you opt for big drawings?
O’Connor: After college I became almost resentful of the stretched canvas. After the time preparing the canvas, I felt tentative about taking chances—it was too precious. I turned to more ordinary materials, ceiling tiles, cheap mirrors, drop cloths—things I found or bought cheaply—to free myself from that tentativeness. Eventually, I began to work exclusively with paper, and if I screwed up I could throw it out. Ironically, I now make pretty labor-intensive works on paper, but I still throw them out sometimes.
I had been looking at a lot of diagrams and thought the connection with paper made sense. Many of my drawings incorporate both the system of making the image, along with the image itself. It’s like the diagram of something along with the final thing itself—they exist simultaneously.
Rail: That’s interesting. And your works have a digital quality.
O’Connor: I’m a product of the transition from hand-made, hand-written information, to the faster, constantly changing, more fragmented way of thinking and receiving information via the Internet, etc. I make work slowly, yet my process of continually adding, changing, revising is almost frenetic and ADD-like. The viewer has to slow down to decode what’s there.
Rail: The gridded bits of information feverishly overload a larger shifting image that emerges like the ghost in the computer. Was Sol Lewitt an influence?
O’Connor: He was someone I looked at, but not a huge influence—I don’t think I could be as true to a system as he was. I was more influenced by Ellsworth Kelly’s random grid pieces.
Rail: What are the key ingredients to your method of generating work?
O’Connor: I see it as two parts coming together—the conceptual and the formal. If I like a certain color or shape, then I find an idea to connect with it. Or I start with an idea, gather information, and think about how that might look so it emerges as something visually interesting. The processes used for each work will be described in detail in the wall text and the catalog for the show.
Rail: How does the idea develop?
O’Connor: Well, for example, I was curious about predictions of the future. In Utah I found a book from the ’60s of experts in various fields predicting the future. Most of them were wrong. And I read a book on Nostradamus. I also like weather reports. I love following them and wanted to be weatherman when I was kid. That’s a small time frame prediction of what’s going to happen in the next hour or day. Overall, the idea is to understand the patterns of the present in order to predict those of the future.
For someone to render a prediction, I imagine that it would first emerge as an abstract vision, which has to be translated into language. I thought, “What if I take the language of a prophesy and translate it back into abstract form, to get to its origin?” A drawing from that group, “Leisure Riots” (2007) is based on a prediction by Dr. James Murphy that, in 2007, because of a lack of political conflict we would riot over our need for leisure time. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
Rail: The opposite. When you translate abstract non-linguistic thought and sensation into language then back to a visual form, the ambiguity gets visualized, but also gives you room to inject other imagery. Perhaps the ambiguity registers as an amorphous quality. How do you get such interesting shapes in your work?
O’Connor: For me to consider a drawing successful it has to end up looking like something I couldn’t predict; it has to take on a life of it’s own. In the process I need to get lost in the information. I feel that there’s a lot—whether it’s earthquakes or itching—that I cannot possibly understand. It’s confusing and difficult to make sense of it, but I have to have that loss of control. That’s when it’s going to start to do something that I don’t understand.
Rail: A framework that’s big enough for you to get lost in.
O’Connor: Yeah. Although I use specific bits of information, the overarching structure is difficult for me to see. Sometimes it’s uncomfortable, but I want to not know and lose track of the idea that started the whole thing. I feel like in the end it will look like something I didn’t completely make.
Rail: So maybe the structure is shifting as you go.
O’Connor: Yeah, sometimes I’ll set up some way to push two things together, two types of information, and see what comes from that. When that first stage is done, I’ll do something else, change it in another way and combine it with something else. And over time, I’ll lose track of where I started and forget the meaning or importance of what I had. A lot of it is my attempt to set up something that happens, like a little experiment, and try to give it some kind of form.
Rail: There’s a performative aspect to this, you’re setting up a duel, or plotting something that’s happening in real life.
O’Connor: Yeah, good point. Much of my work …like the “Itch” drawings are more personal, but feel like performance. When I feel an itch I mark it on my face, then transfer it to paper. That’s like literally tracking the performance; the drawing is a result of that mapping.
Rail: You’re interested in games, sports, chess, the moves, strategy, etc. How has music seeped in?
O’Connor: Actually, pretty directly. When in graduate school I stopped playing the drums, but I missed performing. I used to practice with drummer’s brushes on a pad with a metronome. And I was looking at Twombly, Lasker, etc.—and making circular scribbles, which I would cut out and manipulate. The movement of my hand drawing was similar to that of my hand drumming. So, I set up the metronome, dipped my drum brushes in ink and played on paper. It was a personal mark, slightly unpredictable. A lot of what I do now draws from that moment.
Now, I record personal “performances”. It might be making myself dizzy, or charting memory, itching, weight loss, body temperature and blood pressure. The works are extensions of these very personal performances done in my room, alone, when no one is watching.
Rail: Pseudo-science, you worked with predictions, what about phrenology (studying bumps on people’s heads) or astrology?
O’Connor: I’m drawn to pseudo-science because you’ve got to believe in it, there is no tangible proof that the thing can work or that it’s real.
Rail: Your use of pattern—are you looking at psychedelic or Islamic patterns?
O’Connor: I look at a lot of things as sources, but most of my patterns are invented.
O’Connor: Maps somewhat, even advertising. As a kid, my mother had lots of stuff that she accumulated, unbelievable amounts of things she collected and arranged. I remember the patterns in the wallpaper combined with some knick-knack sitting in front of it. Our house had lot of seemingly clashing things, but arranged very carefully by my mother, thematically and visually. Everything had its exact place; it was like her museum of curiosities. There was one huge silver map I looked at all the time, lying on the couch; I’d be sick or something and would stare at it. I’m sure the environment affected me.
Rail: You use vivid color. You contrast stark black and white pattern with bold color areas, broken up into bits of many intense colors, rainbow color. It’s almost impersonal, random, but you also create depth and dimension in certain areas.
O’Connor: I started using the “rainbow” somewhat unintentionally when I began working more systematically. Color differentiated data; I used as many colors as there were pieces of information. That palette also came from my love of scientific diagrams, like those illustrating the brain’s temperature.
Rail: Do you ever abandon a piece if it’s not working?
O’Connor: I usually hit a point in each one where I feel like I should abandon it. I’ve spent so much time and it’s not working in a way I thought it might. But I’ve invested so much that I usually find a way to work through it. I might paint over a section and draw back into it. At a certain point it’s going to be what it is; I can’t erase the thing. I’ll try to find a new direction.
Rail: What happens if you make a mistake?
O’Connor: I make a lot of mistakes– both in the drawing and in the information presented. I almost always incorporate these mistakes, and they can sometimes lead me to try other things. I will sometimes paint the mistakes out, with gesso or a color. Then I rework it so the process of trying to eliminate something becomes part of the final work. I’m not perfect and the human aspect of transcribing the information is important. It’s important that this is filtered through ME, not someone else. The mistakes and MY mistakes.
Rail: What was your family like?
O’Connor: My mom worked, and still does, as an admitting secretary in a hospital, and my dad works as a lineman for the phone company. My grandfather was a role model. I have one brother, and we were raised Catholic. A real work ethic was instilled in us. I feel like I need to work a lot, and hard, at things. Art wasn’t a part of my early life, so I had to discover how and what an artist could do.
Rail: And school?
O’Connor: The title of my last show was important to me—“100 Days in a Year”. When I was young, a teacher of mine asked our class how many days there are in the year. I excitedly yelled out 100! She corrected me and I was devastated.
Rail: The new work for your show at Pierogi seems to focus on language.
O’Connor: I began to use language specifically five years ago in the sleep talking drawings. My show, “Flannel Tongue,” will have a lot of words! The title is a phrase my grandfather used to describe someone who is a smooth talker, but it really means someone who has trouble speaking—somebody drunk. I liked that mix-up. But more seriously, it’s the idea of how we use language to persuade, motivate, mask or conceal, etc.
Rail: You’re adding paint now.
O’Connor: Yes. And I’m thinking about incorporating different types of spaces into my work that painting would allow me to explore.
Also, I’ve always been interested in portraiture, from ancient times through today. I see a lot of my work as portraits of sorts—albeit distorted ones. Like those small Flemish paintings of royalty, many of my works have a centralized “form”, or profile, with a less prominent background space.
Rail: Portraits of the culture’s unconscious changing shape. You’re work is very original, unlike anybody else’s. It involves rules that insist on the execution of repetitive actions that are taken to an extreme logic, involving information that is useful and useless. I think there’s a level of insanity to it.
Rail: Insanity, one definition is, “A. extreme foolishness or an act that demonstrates it, and, B. legal incompetence or irresponsibility because of a psychiatric disorder; obsessive.”
O’Connor: What are you trying to say? [Laughs]. If someone’s insane, I’d say that they might not know they’re insane. But I’m not insane. There you go. [Laughs]