A Studio Visit:
Kelly O‘Connor

January 23, 2016
By Wendy Atwell
Kelly O’Connor will show new work in April at the David Shelton Gallery in Houston. Shelton recently moved into “the fanciest gallery space in all of Texas,” according to Glasstire’s Rainey Knudson, with “terrazzo floors, soaring ceilings, and beautifully designed gallery spaces.”

O’Connor, who works as the Collections and Exhibitions Officer at the Linda Pace Foundation,  creates psychedelic dreamscapes that look like Walt Disney on acid. She depicts bizarre realms by cutting and collaging found paper pieces into abstractions and landscapes. In some of O’Connor’s art, storybook, TV and movie characters evoke childhood memories. Alice in Wonderland, the Good Witch Glenda, and even Mr. Rogers star in her vignettes. These characters run amok across time and space, mixing with one another to create new, mysterious narratives that echo the unconscious during sleep.

“I don’t want my work to be gimmicky, though,” said O’Connor, alluding to Banksy’s dark theme park, Dismaland, which was temporarily installed in a British seaside town last year. It isn’t; she offsets the bad witches and sinister clowns with spoonfuls of sparkle. There are no foregone conclusions to O’Connor’s evocative open narratives.

In the following discussion, O’Connor shares her influences and how her recent work combines new techniques with earlier themes.

I did this really big piece for the Blaffer (In Real Life). That piece inspired these works, and it will be in the show—it’s 12” tall by 90” wide. These works are in that same vein as that piece.

This summer, I was included in that collage show (Recycled, Repurposed, Reborn: Collage and Assemblage) at the McNay. My Sound of Music piece (Magnetic Fields, 2009) was up on their marketing blog and it was in the exhibit and I was looking at it a lot. I started to fall in love with that piece again, and I decided I wanted to revisit these…characters, because I had moved away from that. At my Women and Their Work show, there were a lot of stark landscapes and abstraction, but not so much of these characters. In the Blaffer work, I thought it would be a great opportunity to bring that back and also in this work, using these different techniques and tools that I’ve developed along the way, and going back to the earlier ideas, of bringing in fairy tales, and more of these sort of characters.

WA: What techniques and tools have you developed?

KO: Doing inlay patterns with geometric shapes, that was something I hadn’t developed in these earlier works. In the earlier works I was really focusing on the characters, but I didn’t have very much abstraction and definitely didn’t have this technique going on. I don’t think those earlier works had quite as much depth, like implied depth with this pattern, and then the surfaces weren’t built up as much.

I just finished this piece (Died to Match). That’s a term in fashion, some top designer like Michael Kors was talking about it, and he even had an acronym, something like “DTM.”

A lot of it is about indulgence…the image that really inspired the whole environment is this image that’s taken from the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy goes into the Emerald City, and this is that famous quote, “Can you even dye my eyes to match my gown?”

[Dorothy] goes in there and that’s when they’re fixing them all up, like the lion is getting his mane all curled, and he has these beautiful locks; the Scarecrow is getting all re-stuffed with fresh hay; the Tin Man is getting all polished up. They have this whole beauty salon that is very futuristic and industrial looking….I wanted to take that as inspiration for this environment, the idea of indulgence, like women getting pampered.

I took this image from The Princess and the Pea, things like sleep; I wanted self indulgent sort of states. Products also act as a metaphor for that. This “Joy” in a bottle…a lot of this has to do with feminism, this idea of being a woman, getting all dressed up and constantly worrying about our looks, but also these older ideals of women in the household.

WA: The Princess and the Pea is such a memory from childhood. Do you get these images from children’s books?

KO: Yes, I find, especially with my 18-month-old son, that I’m thinking of all these fairytales from my childhood, and I remember these really weird illustrations…I was trying to go back and find that and I found the Golden book from the ’80s. And when I was looking for this, I happened to find [The Princess and the Pea], and I was like, that’s a really cool image, because the first thing I thought of when I saw her was, all my works are about artificial happiness. I’ve been thinking about how it relates to today, with the use of anti-depressants. The first thing I thought of was the [princess on the pea] on Ambien.

I just love these illustrations. There are some really creepy ones in here.

WA: That Hansel and Gretel reminds me of Paul McCarthy and Mike Kelley’s Heidi.

KO: I was looking for this book and I found those. A lot of them I pulled from eBay because it’s just so easy if you know what you’re looking for and just to type it in, rather than going to junk shops and stuff like that.

This other, smaller work, this one is of Disneyland. I just love this image; it’s just like pure blissful moment. It’s very idealistic, it’s an ad for life insurance or something, from Life magazine.

WA: How did you get such a good Wizard of Oz image?

KO: On eBay, you have to be careful. But there are a lot of good images from this time period that are not digitally printed.…They are like a real photograph, the real grainy kind, and they often have writing on the back, because they were used for press purposes, but it wasn’t a copy. I took that image and had it scanned it at a high resolution and made it larger.

Then all of these pieces were taken out of Life magazine advertisements, and I’ve been getting a lot of old Harper’s Bazaar and McCall’s magazines from the ’50 and ’60s. I do feel like I’m starting to fall in love with the ’70s a little bit more with the flowers and even it’s actually late ’60s getting into the style of the ’70s that’s what I’m thinking about with this green environment and the flowers.

I like all those really bizarre beauty products, like this. It’s one of the hairdryers. Here’s an image of it in action. All this really kind of convenient, futuristic stuff. The world’s fastest home hairdryer.

WA: When you make a piece like this with so much going on, do you sketch it out first?

KO: I don’t fully sketch it out. I usually have an idea of what the composition is going to be. I have this central positioning of this image and then have this environment built around it. With the piece, Badland (2011), some of the major elements get placed and then all the little stuff gets arranged later. As long as I can decide where the biggest elements are going to go, usually I work with it flat on the table and I piece stuff out, and then I tape it all up and put it up. I go back and forth. I don’t glue, I piece it all out and then once I feel comfortable with everybody being positioned I put all down. There are all of these layers, that’s to make sure that they aren’t glued on top of each other. There’s different spaces, too. I’m trying to imply space with these variations of sizes and placements but also they end up getting this different dimensional quality.

WA: There are so many more layers that I can see when I stand to the side.

KO: Also, once it gets in the frame it’s like a vitrine and it helps. You can see all the layers. I like how my works look in artificial light. I think the glitter and stuff gets activated more.

When you see images from the sources like Life, do you cut them out and start to collect them?

KO: Yes, there’s this whole research process, where I’m thinking of ideas and stuff I’m interested in, and then I start gathering these materials. I go to eBay, I go to the craft stores and the record stores to get these other filler materials like the card stock. Lots of times, I am cutting from record covers, like these butterflies, these were all cut from record covers. So that’s like the research phase, and then I start going through these forms and media and start pulling out images I’m interested in, and so it becomes this big mood board on my wall, and then I refine and edit and then I decide what’s actually going to go in the piece.

Sometimes there are too many options and I have to clear everything away. But usually it starts off with a ton of options and then it gets whittled down. So pieces like these over here, they seem simple there so but there are so many different ads I’m going through and I have to just start clearing things away.

WA: I love the flower hammock.

KO: She’s my favorite right now. It does have such a blissful feel but she’s got the aerosol can, the nastiest, most artificial thing. I titled that one No Man’s Land.

These images are interesting to me just for an aesthetic reason but it’s also the birth of media, during the ’50s and ’60s, the birth of advertising, that’s when television started to become something that was in everybody’s home. It’s just this very utopic time in America, so that’s the inspiration for a lot of this, but I do feel like through my techniques and my contemporary perspective, it’s not just nostalgia.

I am pulling a lot of images from that time period, but I’m thinking of a lot of contemporary ideas, like the idea of dressing yourself up, thinking about social media, creating a character. Everybody has this façade.

WA: Who are you looking at these days?

KO: Neo Rauch is a painter from Leipzig, Germany. He’s very into surrealism. He grew up on the East German side. All of that bizarre Soviet influence, it’s like he was living in a time capsule [during] his whole childhood….I love the surrealism and there’s a lot of mid-century modern objects in his work. He’s actually going to be included in the show the McNay is doing right now, Made in Germany: Contemporary Art from the Rubell Family Collection.