Brooklyn Art Scene: The Machine and the Ghost

John O’Connor has made art for most of his life, and has taught visual arts here at Sarah Lawrence for several years. His upcoming exhibition, The Machine and the Ghost, opens this Friday at Pierogi Gallery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. John and I have been friends and colleagues for a couple of years, and this week I was able to discuss with him a few questions I had regarding the show and his work in general.


Audrey Irving: With the production of the catalogue for the show, how do you feel about the arc of your career as an artist so far – now that you see your earlier work, and your later work together? Are you attracted to the same themes as when you began?

John O’Connor: Well it’s funny looking at the catalogue, it includes some of my earlier work and, yeah, I think from that time the earliest work we have in there was from when I started showing with Pierogi about 10 year ago. I think that’s when I started making work that more or less looks like mine.  When I first started showing with them it was maybe a little more diagrammatic, a little looser at times…  this newer stuff is a little heavier with language, in that way it’s different but I think there are a lot of similarity. I try to visualize some process or some logic that affects the way we behave in some way, that’s not really visible or apparent… I’m kind of trying to give it a form that you could look at. So I guess there’s an investigation that probably came from when I was younger, as a kid, a way of seeing the world, it’s just the subject that’s kind of moved in a different direction. What do you think?


Recurrance Plot (detail). Photo credit: Pierogi gallery and the artist

Recurrence Plot (detail). Photo credit: Pierogi gallery and the artist

AI: I agree, I think I generally see the text as something coming out more that grabs my eye, at least, but I think in general it makes sense, like I look at all the work and I can say, “Ah, that’s one of John’s pieces,” it’s not like a really drastic difference.

JO: Yeah, I think it’s incremental, at a certain point I found, more or less, what I was interested in it looking like, and then in each one you kind of change it slightly, I’m not radically reinventing things every single time. Where as when you’re younger, I think, you jump around and try sculpture, you try all these different things and then you sort of find what you’re into. And in that way, my sculptures are now, I think, more resolved… they look like mine, visually.

AI: Yeah, I want to ask about your sculptures, is your approach to those pieces different than your works on paper? What do they bring to the translation of your ideas that paper doesn’t, or what drew you to working in a three-dimensional format?

JO: I liked that it was real, a physical thing, like a person or an object. I’ve always been attracted to that. And I loved that a diagram gives something for a potential to be realized, when you diagram you’re kind of thinking on paper, or more like planning something, and then wanting to have the plan of something and then the form itself, I think of these as a kind of diagram coming to life all at once, how it bends, you see it take shape. I found also that the sculptures, for some reason I like them to be more simple, once they become three-dimensional I feel like, if they have too much color or too many assets that they become too distracting. I like that it’s simple and kind of clean, they kind of come from the same space, just not as many ideas put on top of each other, just one thing that I’m working from.


Ouija. Photo credit: Pierogi gallery and the artist

Ouija. Photo credit: Pierogi gallery and the artist

AI: Right, I mean, in your drawings it’s not always readily available to the viewer what it is you’re trying to make a diagram of, I think it’s even less clear in your sculptures, it’s really like, “What am I trying to get out of these numbers or letters?”

JO: Yeah, I haven’t shown a lot of the sculptures so I haven’t had much feedback on them, I don’t know what people think of them.

AI: I think they’re interesting, definitely, but I guess it makes me more curious, which is a good thing in some ways.  How do you know when a work of yours, sculptural or on paper, is finished? Do you have an idea of how it will look when you’re beginning it, or does it take a different form as you’re working?

JO: It generally takes a different form, I mean, sometimes I just run out of paper. [Laughs]

AI: Right. [Laughs]

JO: Sometimes if I’m starting with a piece of paper and I don’t get to the bottom, I have to find a way to resolve it. Other times I might set parameters, you know, say, “I’m gonna do this thing for a certain number of times and then the drawings finished,” so it’s sort of the logic of the information or the subject dictating how it will be finished, so it’s not it’s not completely an aesthetic, the content dictates the form. In sculptures as well, you kind of see it vaguely, but I love that, you kind of see it, you kind of have a sense of what it is, and then I like to just start and see where it goes. The sculptures are easier in some ways, I do tweak them, I come up and bend them out a little bit, but they’re usually so simple that there’s not that much that I can really change… you know, or throw ‘em away if they don’t work.


Photo Credit: Pierogi gallery and the artist

Cleverbot II. Photo Credit: Pierogi gallery and the artist

AI: So, about your  “Love Letters” series on Beyonce….

JO: [Laughs]

AI: I know they’re partial fragments of spam emails, but… Beyonce?

JO: Well that came to me, I got an email, which was probably from Beyonce, I guess – like I’m supposed to think that. I’m interested in patterns of speech or language meant to elicit something from me that would be physical or emotional, whatever, supposed to make me act, these triggers or keywords. It’s so strange because they’re something geared to me as a male, and I don’t know, I don’t have any pictures of Beyonce on my computer or anything, but everybody knows who Beyonce is and every guy is supposed to think she’s attractive. Then I looked up another kind of letter, in a completely different kind of language. I saw that one from Napolean, had to tweak it a little bit to fit the format, but I thought the pairing of the two types of languages was interesting… I don’t know how they’re interpreted. [Laughs] I put them on the cover [of the catalogue] because I thought they would fit and be provocative in a way, I’m curious what you thought of them or if you’ve heard anything, I don’t know what people are gonna think.


Love Letters. Photo Credit: Pierogi gallery and the artist

Love Letters. Photo Credit: Pierogi gallery and the artist

AI: I mean, they were kind of baffling to me, but I was very into it. I thought they were really funny.

JO: Yeah! I think they’re funny, I mean, it says somebody “gave up the ghost” – that means they died.

AI: Right, like, what? I think it does come across in the language you used, it’s kind of seems so personal, so intimate almost, but then it’s like, “Wait, obviously this person doesn’t even know them!” like, “John doesn’t know Beyonce!”

JO: [Laughs] Exactly! I love that reaction, that’s perfect.

AI: So I did get some of that, definitely, and I like how they look together, and the idea of, like, “I’m gonna paint these intimate letters,” yeah, I’m into it. So, as one last question: do you have a lucky number?

JO: Oh yeah, I do, the number four. Yeah, ever since I was a kid it was four.


Photo credit: Audrey Irving

Photo credit: Audrey Irving

The Machine and the Ghost, opens Friday, October 11, and is on view until November 10. Catalogue available with essays by Rick Moody, Robert Storr, and John Yau. Visit for hours and more information.

Audrey Irving is a junior student, Seattle native, and Virgo (Scorpio rising). She studies Art and Visual Culture, works at a contemporary art gallery in Brooklyn, and is majorly obsessed with pugs.

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