Tuesday, August 22, 2006

And Then They Were Upon Him | Robyn O'Neill | Bodybuilder and Sportsman

Robyn O’Neill | “And Then They Were Upon Him” | Bodybuilder and Sportsman
Originally Posted on Panel-House: April 2004

Robyn O'Neil's drawings are sparse mid-winter forests occupied by middle-aged men in sweat-suits. Most of them are less than a square foot, but range up to nearly 6'x5'. The mountains, cliffs, and valleys are carved out from the snow by their shadows; evoking the bleak and threatening side of harsh climates and remote areas. Within this environment is the main character of O'Neil's series: the overweight white male in a black sweat-suit, completely unfit for the outdoors.

He operates in three ways. He is often found contemplating, such as in “A Prairie Falcon and a Snowy Plover”, where he staring at two dead birds lying in the snow in an open field. Or he is doing a form of calisthenics, as in “He Ends a Struggle with Difficulties”, where he has both hand outstretched holding a branch as if it where an exercise weight. Lastly, he is a group member participating in the ancient ritual of stoning, as in the title piece, “And Then They Were Upon Him”. Yet, there are group of drawings without the man; simply of a bison, caribou, or even a dead bird ceremoniously surrounded by nearly dead trees, as in “Seldom Seen, Solitary, and Fallen”.

O'Neil's work is dependent upon narrative. She provides a scene where something has or will take place, and gives it a title that encourages the viewer to imagine a greater story in which the subjects are characters. It is this narrative technique that allows these men to inhabit these treacherous environments with a sense of credibility. These images are anything but absurd, these men belong here, as they might belong anywhere else.

It's oversimplifying to interpret these images as another lampoon on the fat, white man who is finally getting what he deserves for destroying our environment. O'Neil's drawings are more focused on notions of humankind's relationship with nature, rituals, and evolution. She is plainly showing how strange it is to see a human in a natural environment. Humans have always sheltered themselves from nature in order to survive. Our culture is on course, as survival has become a given, towards the goals of comfort and convenience. It is through this evolutionary process that humans have shed ancient instincts, rituals, and ceremonies that arguably come from nature, as “Seldom Seen, Solitary, and Fallen” implies. It is within these rituals and ceremonies that wisdom resides, the very basic understanding of who we are as humans and how we understand our relationship to reality. Here, our main character is encountering what reality he has always lived in, and yet isolated himself from. The evolutionary cycle, while it should have made him better suited for this environment, has left him completely inept for survival. We live in a volatile environment (naturally, politically, spiritually, etc.) that we have lost the ability to relate to. This is what the man is realizing, as his calisthenics seem more like attempts at recovering rituals he's long forgotten. These drawings stand not as a critique or attack, but a mournful tribute to what we've lost. And this is why the drawings of only animals in their landscape, as in “Portrait of a Bison”, are so strikingly dignified.

Written by Rowley Kennerk who at the time had just moved to Chicago to attend SAIC for an MA in Art History.

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