Charles Thomas O'Neil 'Narrative elements 2001'

I have been looking at (and thinking about) the paintings of Charles Thomas O'Neil for weeks now, in preparation for writing an introduction to this catalogue. I have been contemplating the markings, the palette, the surfaces, and the metal structures on which the paintings are built. I have been listening to music and reading poetry and perusing art books while studying these dynamic and puzzling paintings. I have been posing questions and waiting for answers. I think I know these paintings. I have held them, installed them, wrapped and unwrapped them. I have spoken about them and to them. Just now I was listening to them. They speak quietly, clearly, smartly. They reveal their history.

With a few directions from the artist and some well-articulated messages from the paintings, I have attempted to navigate my way back to their beginnings. Not to their pre-existence days in the active mind of O'Neil but to their birth on smooth, gessoed and sanded, copper and bronze sheets. I have insinuated my imagination into their unique formula of layers of oil, rivulets of turpentine and handfuls of graphite marks. Marks made in a language that seems to have primordial roots in poetry and music. I can almost recite the paintings or sing them. The luscious, deeply worked ground soundly supports their politely boisterous marks. The marks seem to say, “Look at me, listen to my silent stirrings, let me amuse you, transport you, inspire you.”

Sometimes when I am alone, listening to music and considering art, I wonder what a particular painting would sound like if it were magically translated into music. I think these paintings would hum lullabies. They would croon. Put a few of them together and they would harmonize like the South Philadelphia street corner singers of the fifties. I'm sure they would rap and shout. Some of them might join in a sublime choral celebration. It pleases me to connect these powerful new young paintings to the music of our lives.

And then, there is the poetry of these not “square” square objects. I find within them the poetry of feeling, of adventure and discovery. Of rhyme and reason. I know that there is poetry in these paintings because when I think about them, thinking about writing about them, I wax poetic. I can't help it.

I find it difficult to write wisely and interestingly about art. People try all the time. But in the main, writers fail to convey what art is and is not, what a painting does and does not do. A painting reserves the right to speak on its own behalf. Still, I struggle to act as a word and thought bridge between these paintings and the viewer. To my eye, and in Zen Buddhist terms, O'Neil's paintings seem to originate from a “beginner's mind.” Innocent and fresh, they bespeak a penchant for remembering, for musing, for searching.

Knowing that Agnes Martin is one of O'Neil's favorite artists, I close with a personal memory: Not long ago, I introduced a friend of mine (who was holding a beautiful baby) to Martin. She stared at the child for a full minute and then said, softly, “I wish I could paint that innocence.” I think O'Neil strives for the same goal.

Linda Durham
Linda Durham Contemporary Art