For almost twenty years, artist Robyn O’Neil has been building a world in which the illogical constant of human violence contends with the ungovernable majesty of nature, the sublime. Diligently rendered, O’Neil’s vast landscapes provide an arena in which hordes of middle-aged white men wreak collective havoc on the environment and each other. With her signature combination of poetic stylization and ruthless observation, the artist brings them to justice.
An enormous graphite drawing on canvas, American Animals, anchors the exhibition and gives the show its name. The first of its kind in scale and technique, the work depicts the final act of O’Neil’s saga in which a great flood wipes the slate clean. This titanic seascape, nine by twelve feet in size, is littered with dozens of finely wrought male heads. Whether floating above or sinking below the surface, drifting or drowning, the experience appears to be one of quiet meditation. Both viewer and men are lulled by waves whose gentle slopes evoke locks of flowing hair rather than a righteous deluge. O’Neil’s seascape is rendered complacent as its denizens, whose vacant expressions belie the unfeeling ambivalence which led them to this end.
The exhibition American Animals represents both an expansion of O’Neil’s established oeuvre and an ambitious dive into new material strategies. The artist renders thousands of tiny men who, when not waterlogged, act as a collective wave. They crash violently upon the land and its inhabitants, taking on predators many times their size. References to the most iconic creatures of the American ecosystem are woven into the fabric of this new work: eagles, bison, and wolves are accosted by masses of human figures who fall to their doom from wings and hoofs, their failure comedic and their goals unclear.
Robyn O’Neil offers an evenhanded understanding of the world through a janusian balance of horror and humor. The artist’s landscapes are a scholarly mélange of art-historical references ranging from George Tooker to Fra Angelico to Honoré Daumier. Small watercolors on hotel stationery serve as a playful reminder of places visited and the passage of time. There is hope to be found here, and it lies in continuous exploration — in observing human history and learning from it.
And then you see the waves without pattern, scooping up everyone, throwing them around like so many floating heads, and you can only laugh in your sobbing about all the silly head bobbers. Laughter can shake you from the delirium of grief.
- Lidia Yuknavitch, The Chronology of Water