Charles Thomas O’Neil 'recent work 2016'

Every painting has its own history—or, more precisely, it is its own history: the living record of every perception and thought that went into it.

In his latest paintings, Charles Thomas O’Neil appears to be approaching ever closer to the lyrical and spiritual implications of pure form. The biomorphic forms of his work from a few years ago are largely gone, giving way to more austere geometries of horizontals and verticals. The suggestive calligraphic marks and patterns, which unavoidably alluded to objects in the “real” world, hardly appear, leaving the viewer to consider simply optical essences: the color-forms before the eyes. What communicates in these paintings are colors and shapes, plus the ghost-forms from multiple previous attacks, barely discernible in his layered surfaces.

One senses a faith in the material frankness of the painting medium, and the redeeming potential of a single mark. At a memorable point In Fellini’s “La Strada,” the character known as “The Fool” muses, “I don’t know what purpose this pebble serves, but it must serve some purpose. Because if it is useless, then everything is useless.” Standing before O’Neil’s paintings, one feels the same determination and hopefulness before the implacable. Every mark will matter.

And O’Neil’s forms, as it turns out, matter a great deal— not as isolated events, but as rhythmic notes that cohere in charged and contradictory ways. In the painting like “2780,” white and blue vertical bands, alternating with black ones, march the width of the panel, setting up a quivering ambiguity between foreground/background and subject/void; they could be either white columns against a blue void of sky, or black frames splitting a blue/ white flux. Perched on top of these dark verticals, small, red squares stare back at us. Despite the tight geometry of forms, the slightly irregular pacing suggests an organic, offbeat equilibrium. Are the squares held captive by the streaming dark bars, or do they manipulate these stiltlike verticals beneath them? The artist strives to “distill form out of the chaos”—his own words—and indeed, one constantly senses the chaotic beginnings behind these off-balance rhythms.

Stylistically, O’Neil’s paintings cut neatly between familiar categories. They are evidently both abstract, and expressive, and yet they steer clear of the autobiographical angst of Abstract-Expressionism. (O’Neil describes his approach as “getting away from myself.”) The artist prefers to think of his paintings as objects rather than pictures, echoing the Minimalists’ preoccupation with objecthood and the dissolution of the mental space between viewer and viewed. Closely inspected, however, his paintings show little interest in the honed surfaces and serial symmetry typical of Minimalist works. By contrast, O’Neil’s paintings are determinedly hands-on, built up of countless overpainting and scraping-down of forms, their intervals revealing an organic cohesion rather than a mathematical exactness.

The squares at the corners of “2790,” connected by lines, may at first seem a kind of visual pun, a coy restatement of the painting’s status as wall-mounted art. But a closer viewing derails any such expectations. The squares are not only different colors, but subtly off-square in disparate ways, and unevenly spaced from the painting’s edges. Even the connecting lines turn out to be not simple dividing chords, but the remnants of a previous image— or, more likely, many overpainted images. The “squares” themselves, which seem at first to straightforwardly nail the corners, reveal, up close, many layerings of paint.

Charles Thomas O’Neil talks of his process as “honest negation.” His triumphs, in other words, emerge from failures. Those almost-squares in “2790,” it turns out, were never squares to begin with: “They became that way only at the end.” And those slim, green horizontals in “2796,” which so eloquently punctuate this painting’s window-within-window depths? Surely they arose as final, brilliant inflections of the larger tensions? These notes of green turn out to be, in fact, leftovers—the sole remnants of an earlier state of the painting. In the mysterious, circular discipline of art, process triggers rhythms, and rhythms guide process.

As a small, stilled element in the world, every painting— not unlike Fellini’s pebble—holds the possibility of nourishing us and reconnecting us with our perceptions. O’Neil’s recent work is the very antithesis of “useless.” Though small in dimensions, and concentrating on painting’s most elemental powers, these vibrant paintings are among the most nourishing around.

John Goodrich is a painter and writer based in the New York City area.