The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth presents a 20-year survey of the work of Robyn O’Neil (American, born 1977), on view in Fort Worth, Texas, October 18, 2019, through February 9, 2020. Organized by the Modern’s associate curator Alison Hearst, the exhibition Robyn O’Neil: WE, THE MASSES explores the artist’s fruitful career from 2000 to the present and includes major multi-paneled drawings, signature works of graphite on paper, collages, and the animated film WE, THE MASSES, 2011. This in-depth presentation is the first to examine O’Neil’s formal and conceptual developments over the past two decades.
O’Neil has created intricate, imagined worlds exploring themes of evolution, natural catastrophe, the apocalypse, and the beauty of nature. She is best known for her large-scale works populated with tiny male figures set in harsh landscapes, depicting relatable aspects of the human condition, such as friendship, strife, and death. Pulling inspiration from art history, popular culture, literature, and the weather, O’Neil’s worlds are serious, tender, frightening, and at times comical. Hearst comments, “O’Neil’s lush drawings explore cataclysmic scenarios and existential aspects of life—in both good times and bad. In her realms, the male characters witness the natural world’s unraveling, often resorting to savage, every-man-for-himself behaviors. Her characters are small within vast landscapes where beauty and nature always prevail.” Highly detailed and precise, O’Neil’s graphite-on-paper drawings are made with a .5 mm mechanical pencil and a blending stump her mother gave her when she was in the seventh grade. More recently, the artist has been exploring color in her drawings with the use of colored pencils and oil pastels.
Beginning in 2000, O’Neil shifted away from painting and began her largest body of work to date, which took over a decade to produce. Inspired by her father and his friends, she began to draw middle-aged, suburban men engaging in leisurely outdoor activities, such as calisthenics and skiing. A darkness quickly became palpable in these early works, with the men soon set in frigid winter landscapes having accidents and dying. Over the years, the snowy settings evolved into pastoral scenes and, later, stormy panoramas of rough seas. O’Neil’s characters are always clad in black sweat suits and white Nike sneakers, mirroring the uniform of the Heaven’s Gate cult, a San Diego-based cult led by Marshall Applewhite, who drove his members to commit mass suicide in 1997. O’Neil’s epic narrative continued over the course of 200 drawings but was always intended to have an eventual end, as the scenes never included women or, thus, children.
In the Modern’s These final hours embrace at last; this is our ending, this is our past., 2007, the last man from the series hangs dangerously from a fraying rope above a turbulent, silvery sea. As the title suggests, the drawing marks the finale of her epic narrative. O’Neil has stated, “Endings can be inconclusive, but yet are still called ‘endings.’ They are also starting points; things must end so that something else will happen. In order to be reborn, one must first die.”
O’Neil explains, “Once that [series] was over, I envisioned a world with no one. Empty, raw, new. I saw tectonic plates, a heated ocean, and misty beginnings. It’s my imagined version of this world without the annoyance of us humans. And yes, after utter chaos. So I wanted it to be both the aftermath of The End and images of a new world.” These interludes between figurative works are mysterious, post-apocalyptic drawings of barren landscapes, or, as the artists refers to them, “psychological landscapes.” The animals that O’Neil has depicted throughout her oeuvre are naturalistically drawn in comparison to her purposely awkwardly rendered men and are often symbolic in nature. In The Passing, 2007, which O’Neil made after the passing of her grandmother, a dead owl lies stiffly on a flat surface beneath a darkened sky, and a floating duplicate of its visage, with eyes open, hovers above the departed, signaling the soul’s withdrawal from the body.
O’Neil reintroduced male characters into her work with the animated film WE, THE MASSES, 2011 and the expansive triptych HELL, 2011, a drawing that revisits her now-dead men, who reside in hell. The most ambitious drawing to date, HELL took the artist three years to complete and includes 35,000 collaged elements and 65,000 figures engaged in terrifying scenarios, including murder, being spewed out of a volcano, and burning alive. Such multi-paneled works refer to art-historical examples, such as Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, 1490–1500, which also includes a dense composition of crowds engaging in a variety of activities that devolves into a nightmarish, hell-like scenario. Like Bosch and other art-historical precedents that refer to the theme of hell, O’Neil’s work depicts the worst aspects of human behavior, including mob mentality, and imparts a tale of morality. The artist was raised Catholic, and in format and narrative qualities O’Neil’s triptychs conjure religious, pre-Renaissance altarpieces. Men also reappear in recent works, such as Studies in Suffocation I, 2017, yet here the men are larger in scale and are set in more abstracted landscapes. In her most recent triptych, and the first in color, An Unkindness, 2019, O’Neil extends the themes explored throughout her career, the primal herd mentality and the power of nature, yet this work shifts attention toward animals engaging in such behaviors in an exciting departure for the artist.