“S.O.S.,” 2011. Collage, colored pencil, and graphite on shaped paper, 61?×?61 inches.
John O’Connor’s recent drawings are packed with processed data. His sources range from military history to literature to news stories to measurements of his bodily functions. There is much to read, an overabundance perhaps, and it can just as easily perplex as enlighten. This data generates eye-tripping patterns that spread centrifugally towards the thick, rippling paper’s edges. They are a retinal delight, words withstanding. Up close it’s tempting to get absorbed in the work’s complex systems, though more than once I found myself wondering where on the Möbius Strip of O’Connor’s logic I actually was.
A few of the drawings are big enough to dwarf an adult body and, like the smaller works, are drawn with exceeding intricacy. His marks are deliberate and concentrated, made mostly with colored and graphite pencils. Texts mix with precisely delineated networks of prismatic color. And the notation that guides the work’s systemic movement—gray scribbles of numbers and letters that are like signposts in his mathematically generated proceedings—is visible and traceable. Comprehensible is another question. O’Connor uses the outwardly expanding form of the mandala in many works, lending them a quasi-mystical presence. He also makes good use of inversions as well as negative and positive space, further complicating his multidirectional approach. And yet there is not much that feels unbalanced. In fact, O’Connor’s ability to manage the vortices of his energetic drawings may be the crowning achievement of these works.
Aesthetically speaking, O’Connor works off an algorithm somewhere between the lucid visions of Alex Gray and the geometric rigor of Frank Stella or Peter Halley. A couple smaller drawings owe much to Op-Art. Conceptually, however, he’s more in keeping with information-based artists like Andrew Kuo or Simon Evans who rigorously chart, diagram, or graph data they find personally relevant or just plain interesting. For example, “Blood Pressure,” (2011) is a massive drawing (nearly a five foot square) centered on an interlocking set of multicolored bars that seem to electrify overlapping sets of large, bulbous black-and-white thumbprints. The bars correlate to daily measurements taken of the artist’s blood pressure, which are plotted along a system of his own invention. Tribal looking shapes emerge out of the thumbprints, and ribbons sprout out of the tribal shapes. The information at the core of this work may be undecipherable—it has created an enigmatic shape—but only because it has been translated into an aesthetic code that informs every other layer.
O’Connor’s fascination with chains of command and cryptic knowledge is brought to bear on military history in “S.O.S.” (2011). In addition to a distress call, the title is also an acronym for “Secret of the State,” which is spelled out on the fringe of this many-colored compass rose. There is a mandala at its center, ringed by the names of mostly obscure people who died odd deaths. Jimmy Lee Gray, the rapist and murderer whose execution was too gruesome to be observed, is saddled up near the Basahga soccer team, all of whom died instantly when a bolt of lightning struck the field, mysteriously leaving the opposing team unharmed. The outer layer depicts logos of corporations with known connections to intelligence operations. A slew of military patches denoting peculiar missions occupy points of convergence in the compass rose. The work seems to suggest that covert forces (political and supernatural) control the cardinal directions of history. The subtext of this may be that while contemporary society churns out a glut of information, humanity is driven forward by knowledge unknown to most.
Last year an article ran in the New York Times in which General McMaster was quoted saying, “[PowerPoints] are dangerous because they can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control.” In other words, any batch of information can make a convincing and mesmerizing image if given an authoritative form. For the general, if the schematics overwhelm the data to the point of obfuscation, that’s a problem. For O’Connor it may simply be part of the process. While he often acts like a computer—encrypting data within numbers and sequences that create visually stunning patterns—he also points to the computer’s ability to act like a human, explicitly so in “Turing Test” (2011). This is where O’Connor has fully tuned into a channel of contemporary perversity: the one where we create machines to behave as we do, then we go about mimicking them.