Annie O’Neill calls her show at Family Traditions a “mini-retrospective,” implying that the collection of photographic prints, drawings, silkscreens and steel sculptures is but a small sample of the work that she has accomplished in nearly 40 years of making art. And it doesn’t even include examples of her latest foray into clay – an omission that she says has to do with the economics of pricing pieces for sale in galleries. Visitors can still get a solid sense of the proliferation and variety of her artistry.
O’Neill’s passion to travel far and wide, and to take in local culture and allow it to influence her – these all make for compositions as varied as life itself. From images resembling cave-wall drawings and the layered design technique of Guatemalan reverse appliqué to ones entirely abstract and crisp, almost suggesting a more rigid sensibility, her pieces suggest curiosity and vitality. “My work is more or less homogenous. Everything is related to decoration – details – in the animals, birds or whatever images I’m working on,” she says, indicating the primary thread that’s apparent in the collection as a whole.
“Since I’ve been in the Hudson Valley, I’ve gone through various stages. In 1977, I started drawing. Then I started making these steel pieces,” she says, indicating the freestanding, one-dimensional metal figures cut with oxyacetylene. “I wanted to see what it was like to draw on steel. These are less complicated pieces than I was originally doing, which were large-scale birds with maybe a thousand cuts in each piece.”
O’Neill studied silkscreening at the Women’s Studio Workshop, where she produced work on both fabric and paper. “Now I’m back to working in clay and a little bit of steel. Thematically, all my work has to do with overdecorating, which is influenced by Mexican folk art: the playfulness and color.” She comments how the clay work – irregular platters and vessels carved and painted with animals and male figures – is similar to the steel sculpture, where cuts into the material bring shapes and forms to life in silhouette.
There are no women in the artist’s sculptural images. When asked what that was about, she says, “You’ll have to see my nonexistent psychiatrist.” She laughs and says that she doesn’t probe the reasoning behind what comes from her psyche.
“I choose animals that have a lot of texture. I’ve always been fascinated with how many feathers a bird has, or how many petals a rose has, or scales on a fish. There’s something very elemental about cave drawings, and also old paintings on ruins. But I don’t think about all that when I’m working. I’m just doing what comes out. When I decorate a clay piece, for example – I’m not a musician, but it almost feels like playing music. You can’t stop with one or two brushstrokes. You move from side to side, and it feels like I’m playing some instrument.”
As an artist, O’Neill thinks about art all the time, noticing how colors relate, how figures become energized and transformed in the very process of depicting them. She doesn’t title her pieces, preferring not to suggest exactly what a viewer should think about when contemplating the work.
In her photography, she looks for surreal details, attempting to mix elements of design with figural images, and doing so without the technical magic of Photoshop or any other digital program. “These are straight-on images. I don’t believe in manipulating any of my photographs.”
“Most artists are just building on other artforms. Sometimes I think, ‘What’s original?’ But to me it doesn’t really matter. It’s just your take on particular imagery. There is usually a lot going on in each of my pieces.”
O’Neill shares the gallery space at Family Traditions with painter Joe Reilly, a Stone Ridge artist whose unique art books and boxes are regularly featured there. His quiet paintings represent what he sees around him: beautiful renderings of a seemingly peaceful life.
Annie O’Neill & Joe Reilly opening reception, Saturday, September 13, 4-6 p.m., up through Monday, October 6, Family Traditions, Stone Ridge Towne Center, 3853 Main Street, Stone Ridge; (845) 377-1021, https://familytraditionsstoneridge.com/art-gallery.