This article was written on 29 Nov 2012, and is filled under Interview.

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Artist Interview: Joseph O’ Neal

 AR: Could you describe your background, and how you first became interested in painting as a visual medium?

JO: I grew up in North Carolina. I always thought in an abstract manner and always made things, but never considered myself an artist. I was under the impression that an artist was someone who sat quietly and made realistic renderings of sailboats and such. That didn’t appeal to me. Skateboarding and punk rock lined up much closer to my teenage angst than an easel and water colors. When I was in my late teens skateboarding led me to art. It was through the work of Mark Gonzales, Ed Templeton, Neil Blender, and other skate related artists that I first became familiar with painting and creating in a visual sense. This was an entry point. From there I discovered Basquiat, which led me to Twombly, Twombly led me to all the 50’s painters, and so on in a natural progression.

AR: Materiality and technical narrative seems to play a significant role in your work. Spray paint, ink, sawdust, oil stick, tape, silkscreen, found objects, collage, industrial paint, and acrylic paint can all be found in your work.

What is your studio process typically like, and how do you decide upon which materials you incorporate within a piece?

Joseph O' Neal, Golden Bough 4, 37" x 4" inches, acrylic, tape and oil stick on found wood, 2011

Joseph O’ Neal, Golden Bough 4, 37″ x 4″ inches, acrylic, tape and oil stick on found wood, 2011

JO: When I work I take a completely visceral approach, the material usually has to do with what is around me. I try and have a real urgency when I paint, working in waves. I strive to make honest work and go about it in a primitive manner.

AR: I can see a connection to Cy Twombly, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jean-Michel Basquiat in your paintings and sculptures in terms of your mark making and materiality. Who are you currently looking at and what artists from the past inspire and inform your works?

JO: I don’t see enough work, but I really dig that guy Sergej Jensen. His subtle color choices, and the honesty of his materials is really something special. It definitely works.

In terms of the past I feel a connection with the 50’s painters and the Black Mountain College movement. Right now I find myself mostly immersed in the work of Twombly, Beuys, Rauschenberg, Tapies, and Schnabel. Seems like a lot of art folks hate Schnabel’s work; but for me he is one of the best.  Oh and Picasso, if I don’t mention Picasso I’m just an asshole. If you fancy yourself a painter and don’t dig Picasso, you aren’t a painter.

As for Basquiat, I devoured his work in my late teens and early twenties. There is no doubt that it has made an impression on me. More or less it is the urgency with which he painted that has affected me most. I don’t want to say that I outgrew it but I don’t think of him as much these days.

Joseph O' Neal, Feathers/Roots, 31" x 23" inches, acrylic, tape and oil stick on silkscreen, 2012

Joseph O’ Neal, Feathers/Roots, 31″ x 23″ inches, acrylic, tape and oil stick on silkscreen, 2012

AR: Your work is beautifully poetic. Layers of color, delicate lines and moments of repeated words and phrases create a mystery to your work that is really intriguing. Are these words used to guide the viewer in reading your pieces? What is the meaning behind the repeated words and phrases?

JO: The words and phrases are free associations, automatic writing. I am never trying to set up a narrative or guide viewers to see the works in a certain way or take a certain feeling or thought from them. They are completely ambiguous in that manner. I want the work to be an opportunity for something to occur within the viewer. I am not going to build you a house but I will place the tools and lumber at your feet.

AR: What’s your fascination with Jacqueline Onassis all about and what does she represent to you? She seems to be a constant subject for you.

JO: I’ve been working on the Onassis series for 5 or 6 years now. First I became fascinated with the way the word Onassis sounds. With all connotations aside it is a wonderfully poetic word. I also like the way it looks when written.

As a person I find Jacqueline Onassis extremely intriguing, as she is full of conflicting labels and traits. Part myth, part painful reality; At times elegant, at times tragic. Representing American strength and fortitude, yet maintaining a certain sense of European Bourgeois. I like that she can be taken many ways. There is no concrete path.

Joseph O' Neal, Walt Whitman, inches, diptych, industrial paint, acrylic and oil stick on found wood, 2011

Joseph O’ Neal, Walt Whitman, inches, diptych, industrial paint, acrylic and oil stick on found wood, 2011

AR: Ties to literature are obvious in your work. You refer to Walt Whitman and Carl Jung in several pieces. I’ve been reading a lot of Carl Jung recently, so I am particularly curious if you share the core beliefs of Transcendentalists and if so how does your work reflect these philosophies?

JO: By no means am I a scholar or expert on Jung, but I do find his work relevant to painting. I think the truth or as close to the truth as we are able to understand does come from the subconscious. It is important to fill my mind with high-minded material, to look at masterpieces, to analyze work. It is important to absorb these things. But beyond that I think it is important to be intuitive and primitive, to be close to nature. Working in a brutally intuitive manner can create space for the subconscious to override the conscious mind. I try and trust my intuition and not give myself the discourtesy of trying to make meaning of my actions and gestures when I’m working. I make time to consciously observe my work and figure out what works and what doesn’t, but that time isn’t when I have a brush in my hand.

Joseph O' Neal, Song for Isis, wood, found material, acrylic and industrial paint, 2011

Joseph O’ Neal, Song for Isis, 4.5 ft x 2.5 ft x 2.5 ft, wood, found material, acrylic and industrial paint, 2011

AR: You are a part of the Brooklyn-based art collective Bluetan. Who runs Bluetan, how many artists are a part of the collective, and how did it start?

JO: There are five of us involved. Other than myself it is: Brandon Fonville, Geoff Henshall, Steve Chellis, and Joe Strasser. Brandon Fonville and I do most of the day-to-day logistical work. But everyone is involved in the curatorial aspect, the direction we take it, and the way in which we approach our exhibitions.

Geoff Henshall and I used to curate shows out of my apartment in Wilmington, North Carolina. I lived in this old apartment right in the middle of downtown. The place had beautiful brick interior walls. Someone painted them white then someone else came back and tried to re-paint the bricks in but gave up midway through the job. So it was kind of a funny scene in there. We would take all of my furniture and everything else that ends up in an apartment and shove it in my room like a storage unit and turn the space in to a gallery. I don’t know about my work back then but I am very proud of those shows. So that’s how it started. It was just Geoff and I for a few years. That was 2003 or 2004. Then the rest of the guys just made sense. I am very honored to be able to work with all four of these guys. We all have different approaches and in some ways different philosophies, but we all carry the same seriousness which is important.

AR: What exactly does Bluetan do and how does the collective function?

JO: We put on shows a few times a year as a collective, and make and sell zines of our work and the work of other artists and photographers we feel are relevant. In addition to the bluetan shows, we all do our individual work and participate in group and solo exhibitions. It keeps the five of us in conversation and is a good platform for us to present work and ideas.

Joseph O' Neal, Joan of Arc, 64 x 27.5 inches, acrylic, chalk on found wood, 2010

Joseph O’ Neal, Joan of Arc, 64 x 27.5 inches, acrylic, chalk on found wood, 2010

AR: What has it been like to make work and exhibit within a collective for you as an artist?

JO: It has been very rewarding and gratifying. We have been doing this for over 7 years now, so we have been able to fine-tune how we approach exhibitions as a collective and still maintain our individual integrity and work. At times it can be a trying and challenging endeavor but I feel it is important and worth it.

AR: I often see artists that seem to try to go it alone, and while this can work, I, like you, believe that as artists we are all in it together, and should work to support each other as much as possible. I firmly believe there is enough room for everyone in the art world. What recommendations can you give to other artists regarding collaborative endeavors and the advantages of being a collective?

JO: Collaborations are hard. We are all very close and have been able to put our egos aside to try and create something that works as a whole, but we are also still growing in this regard; with every exhibition and project we learn something new and apply it to the next. So I guess I would recommend that you trust and admire the people you work with.

Joseph O' Neal, Nemi, 42.5" x 36.5" inches, canvas, paper and acrylic on wood, 2012

Joseph O’ Neal, Nemi, 42.5″ x 36.5″ inches, canvas, paper and acrylic on wood, 2012

AR: I know you have exhibited at art fairs, in addition to your gallery shows and the DIY pop-up shows you help curate and organize. What are the advantages for you as an artist to stage DIY exhibitions?

JO: DIY shows just feel real. There is nothing plastic about them if done correctly. It’s hard to achieve that feeling in a fair or a commercial gallery. I think this also comes from our upbringing that if you want to do something you just do it.

AR: What is up next for you and Bluetan?

JO: In the immediate future we are looking to do a show in North Carolina, Ultisols; which refers to the red clay and soil found in much of the state and will be loosely based on our individual relationships to the region. We are also looking to get more heavily involved in making zines and booklets. We have some amazing artists and photographers lined up to make zines and booklets with us in 2013 so I am very excited about that.

AR: Thank you for taking the time to chat with us here at Art-Rated. We truly respect the amount of energy you put into both your work and your collective, and we love your paintings. Best of luck on your upcoming endeavors.

JO: Thank you.


Lily Koto Olive is a New York-based artist, writer and musician. She began to write critically about art in 2010 while attending the New York Academy of Art for her MFA in Painting. She has exhibited her paintings at the Dumbo Arts Center in Brooklyn, NY, RH Gallery,  HERE Arts Center, Sloan Fine Arts and ISE Cultural Foundation in NYC and Marketplace Gallery in Albany, NY. Lily is also a contributing writer for The Brooklyn Rail.

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