Making bold choices day after day can be exciting, or terrifying, but certainly not boring. That’s what Ken O’Neil’s oeuvre communicates, oddly enough with almost inexplicable beauty.
An exhibition of O’Neil’s work, titled “From Pen to Paint,” opens with a reception today (March 16) from 4-6 p.m. at the Encore Gallery of the Taos Community Auditorium, 145 Paseo del Pueblo Norte. It will remain on view through May 11.
The show, part of the venue’s “TCA Exhibits” series, features the artist’s most recent work, and a few pieces from the past five years that have never before been exhibited. His art book “Behind the Paint,” designed and distributed by University of New Mexico Press, recounts excerpts from over 40 years of journaling that spawned various pieces and series of art works. Copies will be available during the opening reception.
Press materials put it mildly though, stating the show “features oils and monotypes with each work of art telling a story that is expressed with bold, yet soft colors, and compositions of patterns and shapes blending abstract and representational forms.”
Candid about his shamanistic life ways, O’Neil unapologetically presents mesmerizing parallel realities of color-blasted abstract and figurative oils, acrylics and monotypes. There’s even a dazzling metal transfer, a collaboration with Jack Leustig Imaging of Arroyo Seco and photographer Gak Stonn of Taos. Titled, “Fire Circle,” it is a blazing heat feast with a dense spit of blue-hot coals birthing a new-furled flame, snaking up and out to some other-dimensional surface.
“My goal is to paint images that can exist in two worlds, the ancient and the modern,” O’Neil says in an artist statement. “What leads me to this path is my fascination for the art of those who have gone before me, including those who used cave walls for their canvas; a woven textile filled with symbology; petroglyphs and pictographs; finely textured and structured stone walls and statues. Maybe theirs was an adventure into an unknown world also.”
“Haiku” is a rich, hell-fired red dimension boasting a short black “kata” sword and a larger black “warrior” sword, punctuated by scribed text, burned-in perhaps by the intensity of the incantation, an ancient proverb or dire warning floating between the swords, and seeming to appear and disappear in a roiling atmosphere of excavation.
“Kora” is an abstracted stormy landscape of Mount Kailash in Tibet, one of the 50 countries where this intrepid artist, writer and filmmaker has lived, co-producing films with his famous Taos filmmaker partner and spouse, Andrea Heckman. Although figurative, the whistling snow about the stormy Himalayan peaks celebrates the elementals of Earth, Air, Fire, Water and Space, dwarfing the accomplishments of mere men.
In “Layers of Understanding,” a near-figurative inner-scape painted after the November 2016 election, there are cuneiform, Irish runes and Asian symbols embedded within and atop layers of red, brown, white, yellow, orange, crimson, navy and much more. In this piece he said he wanted to communicate that America is a multicultural country, which some people are trying to change post haste.
The feelings from the journal notes that inspired “Layers of Understanding” include: “Confusion, discord; Hitting a wall; Imbalances; We are all connected; Black, White, Brown, Red, Yellow; We are but strands in the web of Life, break one and we are all affected.”
An avid writer (his writing group is the Inksters), O’Neil’s creative process begins with journaling. Once roused by an entry, he brings it full circle, giving the mental concept a visual form through art.
He jump-starts a painting with words on a 3 by 5-inch card he fixes to a studio wall — words describing the feeling of a journal entry. How exactly a piece takes shape in how many days is a variable, but one he trusts, noting “when the clarity comes, so does the work of art, however that is not to say that there are not many detours in the rendering of the final work.”
He undercoats all his canvases and panels with gold paint. Why such an alchemical inquiry? He says gold signifies a richness “that is an undertone rather than a flagrant thing. Its value is when it can be sensed sneaking through the overpainting, felt more than seen perhaps. It doesn’t work in monotypes for me because the monotype purpose is to free up the artist mind, and you are in a partnership with the master printer as well.”
True to his narrative bent, he is a merciless editor and his own toughest critic. He recalled pieces he’s completed, which later, he found he hated, and so whited-out after weeks of painting, just to start anew. He maintains he will not sign a work unless he is completely satisfied with it.
A native of Vancouver, Canada, O’Neil chose art at age 46. After climbing corporate ladders in Silicon Valley and finding three piece suits and board rooms dull, he chose a new path through San Francisco Art Institute and the Marchutz School of Lithography in Aix-en-Provence in Southern France.
He took the ultimate risk in choosing art over the security of the known world. And now he feels at the end of the day, if a viewer can get inside one of his canvases and travel with him, then the painting is a vessel of success and commonality.
For more information contact the Taos Center for The Arts office at (575) 758-2052 or visit tcataos.org.