"If I can visualize the painting, it's already finished." My crazy (and lazy) friend supported his indolence with reference to infamous artist Marcel Duchamp, who, for allegedly similar reasons, quit painting and spent his remaining years playing chess.
Artist Jimmy O'Neal has a better slant on the "thought painting" idea. O'Neal paints with his brain. My school bud was an absurd reductionist and minimalist; O'Neal is, by his own declaration, a Maximalist. The title fits.
After I met the painter last week at the opening of his show, Primacy of Movement, I visited him in his studio 20 miles west of Asheville. The man, the artist, the Maximalist, is a creative font, an off-center explorer of boundlessness - physical, intellectual and spiritual. O'Neal is a builder and tireless dreaming machine and is either brilliant or brilliantly flaky, or perhaps both... I can't tell. My student friend searched for and found boundaries and took a seat. O'Neal searches boundaries so he can cross them. Recently, he found the Charlotte city limits.
O'Neal's paintings are at the Joie Lassiter Gallery on the 11th floor of the Odell building in Charlotte through mid-June. These paintings greet visitors with flash, smoke and mirrors; they're shiny and spangled, and initially too reminiscent of a silvery monochromatic Liberace in sequins.
But first impressions are often deceiving. Those are liquid mirrors, not sequins. And that's not Liberace, it's Jackson Pollock's godson, and within the looping silver monochrome, he's laced with subtle color. There's substance behind the shine, but appreciation will take investigation, speculation and inquiry. Also on display, in the street level Lassiter Gallery and requiring no effort to love, is O'Neal's EEG painting machine. Intriguing and bizarre, his machine provides a peek inside a restless mind crossing another boundary.
To produce his brain paintings, O'Neal hooks himself up to an EEG machine which sends impulses to a dual axis paint brush. The brush paints on a surface while following signals from electrical charges pulsing a few millimeters outside the artist's head. He thinks the painting. All motor skills are handless.
With his machine, O'Neal produces paintings using only mind and body emanations. While electrical impulses from his head control the movement of his brush, color is infused into the brush with sensors attached to five different regions of his body. Both the movements of the brush and the incorporation of color to the paint surface are wholly remote and involuntary. Duchamp would have been proud.
Why build a machine to eliminate the hand? Dada and surrealist painters used methods of "automatic writing," or drawing, in attempts to tap into, and record, subconscious thought. One idea was to relegate hand motion to involuntary movements, allowing the arm to become a loyal agent of the primal mind, and so expose a piece of the psyche unavailable during waking states of consciousness. The disembodied hand recorded the visit with paint, pen or pencil. Results were mixed, but the idea was, and remains, intriguing.
Using his machines, O'Neal takes the idea of tapping unfettered consciousness a step further. Subconscious expression is recorded using neither hand nor eye, and without the incursion of voluntary thought. It's all up to a mechanized interpretation of the raw electrical data. The artist's role is reduced to a passive retrieval of uncontrolled, and, for the time being, indecipherable information. If not for all the inventive work it took to get here, the man with the electrodes stuck to his head might appear lazy.
O'Neal's brain brush pumps mirrored paint. He paints on scarred and sanded mirrored fiberglass sheets. Using both manual and remote techniques, he applies acrylic emulsion which "melts" the sanded, opaque surface, causing the reflective mirror to reappear. The emulsion is viscous -- it leaves a textured trail reminiscent of dried blood, hardened molasses or petrified slug slime, effects dependant on color and paint consistency.
The mirrored, textured surfaces reflect whatever is in front of them - you, me, the room behind us. Some areas of the mirrored surfaces are clear enough to see the pores on the end of your nose, other reflective marks are laced with lines of a brush and distort or darken objects as though spied through melted glass.
The paintings play with time and with us, reflecting us in the present moment. The experience is very Be-Here-Now. Though never escaping the status of artifact, the works literally incorporate us into the show whether we like it or not. Our eyes, our smile, our bodies, even our body movements around the painting, are part of the painting until we walk away. The artist encourages --demands! -- our participation.
O'Neal also manually incorporates various images into his mostly abstract paintings. Recognizable outlines waft in and around his mirrored marks. Horse heads, feet, hands, torsos, flesh. According to the artist, the images he uses were solicited through his website. He received hundreds. He uses images which represent certain archetypes, some negative, some positive. In keeping with his penchant for openly receiving suggestions, urgings or unintended, revelatory advice, O'Neal uses sent images which convey a personal or symbolic significance - satyrs, beasts, bodies male and female, comic and popular culture characters, Beelzebub, Shiva.
O'Neal works and lives in Marshall, a tiny mountain town pinched between the French Broad River and a monstrous mountain and mired in a time warp looped sometime around 1950. Ten yards outside his back door are train tracks on a raised gravel bed, 30 yards beyond that the river, and across the river a four-acre island. The man and his art mirror his digs. He is geographically isolated, as fecund as the Kudzu, and as wide open, as deep and, in places, as shallow as the river. And like this mountain hinterland, his work is difficult to navigate, a little spooky, alluring, and eventually worth the effort.
Jimmy O'Neal's exhibit, Primacy of Movement, will continue through June 11 at the Joie Lassiter Gallery, 525 North Tryon Street. For more info, call 704-373-1464.