MARKS AGAINST FUTILITY | Essay by Suzanne Moss

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Marks against futility

An essay by Suzanne Moss about recent works by Derek O’Connor in a group exhibition B5761626572 at M 16 Artspace:

29 October – 15 November 2015


Firstly, O’Connor’s works Dog Days and Coming Ashore, Running Away, Hiding, Moving Forward are part of a powerful group show with four others: Robert Cleworth, Hamilton Darroch, Christoph Preussman and Paul Uhlmann. Subtle links and myriad conversations occur between the works with their varying degrees of thoughtful political engagement, homage, suggestion and objection. This would ideally be the subject of a substantial essay, however, I had already been writing about O’Connor’s paintings after following their development over the last year at least, and was not at all prepared for the visual treats on offer in the main gallery.

The night before moving house a few weeks ago, I was awake with the aftermath of O’Connor’s painted marks continuing to whisper their incessant concerns. Once you let them into the house of your visual memory, they are insistent. I felt compelled to write in order to understand.

Using his customary broad palette of specific colours – an acidic yellow and green, a 50’s kind of blue, a fleshy pink and bloody red, O’Connor’s painted marks overlie, gesture at and caress the repeated images of World War II photographic imagery found on the covers of documentary books. My intention here is to elucidate how painting alters and affects these images.

Bringing together two areas of his oeuvre – collage and painting – O’Connor’s territory of focus is undeniably humane, or pitiful, referencing Paul Virilio’s humanitarian interpretation.[1] They are marks that, if possible to assign a purpose to them, stack up against futility. With this ‘aha moment’, they seem to stop their clamoring in my mind.

Impossible to ignore, Ham Darroch’s striking Swag, brings a sense of central command to O’Connor’s works lined up on opposing walls to the left and right. Left, right, left, right…there is a strong military undercurrent with a beautiful contradiction. Where you might expect to see a swastika is a kind of colour wheel. Made of khaki canvas, Swag is akin to a large colour magnet, connecting, organising and energising all the colours employed in the exhibition.

Equally significant, you’ll notice that a particular kind of black and white photography unifies this body of work. A man is being kicked to death. You cannot see the image but it persists. A man stares blankly out at the camera. Rail tracks lead into deep space, to the camps. Human life was and is forcibly, cruelly taken even as I write. O’Connor objects by noticing and taking some kind of action to shift what we notice; perhaps removing what does not reference humanity or replacing what was. He will reveal the image of a face. Remember this face. Sentimental? Sometimes there is nothing left for a person, or nothing left of a person. Painted marks do what they can, adding human touches to what needed compassion then. Not only is there noticing, there is touching. If time is an illusion, such actions are not in vain.

Not to draw attention to them selves, O’Connor’s marks overlie, but do something else entirely. They seem to me to be like a conversation between the un-thought or what might-have-been-said along with the useless volleying of afterthoughts of those who have no answers whatsoever, or futility. Between these sentinels of silence and inanity, abide the rawness of screaming, deep rumbles of inclement weather, dogs growling, flesh wounding, sounds of sorrow we cannot spell, and the underlying stillness of death.

Speaking of dogs, regarding the title Dog Days, O’Connor recalls accounts following World War II of dogs searching for food, frightened, barking, no-one paying attention, their owners gone. Emblematic of isolation, powerlessness and lack of attending to what matters, perhaps there is more in common with our times than we might care to acknowledge. I recommend suspending reason momentarily, feel into the marks and read the works this way. Allow your self to be touched. Pat the dog. In being able to respond to these images, and suggest you do the same, painting is not dead.

Proceeding from the deaths of those we hold dear, painting and paying attention seem more relevant. Pointing to what we cannot verbally articulate, painting-attending refers to what is seen, mulled over, touched and experienced by the painter-observer. Quantum physics tells us the observer changes the behavior of particles/waves simply by watching and waiting. For perhaps seventy years we have known this. The observer, who may not know their agency, observes, and like the flap of a butterfly’s wing changes the world while words fall about like soldiers at the front.

In regard to falling, earlier this year the Afghan woman Farkhunda was beaten to death in broad daylight in front of a large crowd in March this year. Responsible men were not charged with her murder.[2] The mural recently made of blood in her honour in a Kabul street is stark, elegant and important.[3] Paint, in O’Connor’s most delicate of applications, remembers the gentle touching of a swab to a wound as in the case of Farkhunda’s memorial. Alternatively, in its stretching, peeling, splatting and clumping, paint can behave like beaten flesh. Paint, also like wilted flowers on a casket, commands observe! And this is not about flowers.

While powerful, to simply observe is not enough. Behold, I hasten to add.

To behold derives from the Old English bihaldan – to hold.[4] Our attention can be held or focussed on an object with our vision, mind and body, implicating us in the experience of a lived sensual encounter. Michael Fried observed that for Courbet beholding ‘profoundly implicates the body’.[5] Courbet’s self-portraits, in which he is depicted with his eyes almost closed, emphasise the inner experience of the body, and the closeness of his subject to the picture plane imposes on the viewer’s space.[6]

Artists employ a range of compositional strategies to engage the viewer. O’Connor’s vitrine-like box frames, the strong book reference and the dense rows of works invite the viewer to come in close. Where Courbet compels the viewer not to come too close, Rembrandt implicates the beholder’s location in space as part of what is happening in the picture.[7] O’Connor is aligned with the latter, especially evident when beholding the railway tracks from a privileged location and the painting that is reminiscent of an iced-over window where the beholder is on the inside looking out.

The shape of windows echo at the other end of the gallery in Preussman’s exquisite works in colour pencil.

Remember John Berger’s (     ) Hold Everything DEAR?[8] Look at O’Connor’s marks and see the parentheses holding the spaces. Sometimes they are unmatched as if flailing about. Sometimes there is only one. One arm missing. Observe, behold and hold everything dear… and then what might happen? Miracles, I reckon.

Unlike the screen-based image, we want to touch these paintings. Behind Perspex, no, you cannot run your fingers over this once-was-a-book. Nor can you read it in the usual way. Come close and look, but you cannot touch. There is a sense of the preserved thing inside. And it is dead, of course. Those people have all died, but the subject is alive.

O’Connor’s cover paintings, in their way, hold what cannot be held; and by their attention, somehow bear witness and guard what could not be protected. We apprehend the repetition of images – these ones seen so many times by those in this area of scholarship – and in treating each one differently, O’Connor reassigns a sense of originality, and with that, aura.[9]

The book cover suggests learning and the learned. Disembowelled, the once tidy cover is paint covered, both more than and less than book. Something else requiring less presumption and more openness perhaps. In an anecdote told by teacher Eckhart Tolle, an Israeli man and an Indian man discuss what they live by.[10] We live by guts said the Israeli. We live by grace said the Indian. I was reminded of what O’Connor does. Both. Guts for the honesty of making marks that respond to intention – they make no claims; are not self-conscious, ironic or cool metonymy.

If these marks had temperature, the works would turn to ash. Ah, and grace, the grace of surrender to the ego-less state of making marks like this. How else can a child do it, and why was it that Picasso yearned for it? Because such mark-making contains innocence and truth. One must put aside jaded ideas of one’s self, shed stuff and visit the underworld where there are no pretenses.[11]

In releasing the need to be anyone and make meaning, meaning is created. With an absence of effort, bypassing logic, meaning is here and it is fresh and outraged: Fuck you! It says. I love you! Not the romantic bullshit – I just wish you were not hurting. I feel this. I am made of the same stuff. I want the violence to stop. STOP NOW!… I can do nothing but what I am doing. I wish this never happened. For God’s sake, it’s still happening. I hate this fucking shit. What about the children? The women. I cannot stop crying inside…

Three threads could do with connecting – war, Abstract Expressionism and poetics. Poetic is a word to describe something that touches our souls; that reminds us we are human. This was an intention for artists under the Abstract Expressionism umbrella, aware that Abstract Expressionism (AbEx) is a convenient term to group and attempt to explain a number of disparate, mostly American artists who were working around the same time. O’Connor’s work has been linked to Abstract Expressionism in not especially positive ways as if AbEx were somehow bad. To put shit on AbEx seems to be fairly commonplace, however, most significant for us now is the concern for humanity within AbEx manifestoes; the artists’ engaged interest in the full range of human experience and their corresponding outcomes – from humble to magnificent – that continue to resonate with people now. An example that reminds me of O’Connor’s more heavily painted works is Lee Krasner’s ‘grey slab paintings’ (only one remains), repeatedly layered and scraped during the early years of WWII.

The artists of the mid 20th Century were reclaiming a sense of what it meant to be human in the wake of the atomic obliteration of Hiroshima and other horrors of war. Many of them listened to Japanese Zen Master – DT Suzuki – who held no hatred in his heart for what happened, and while he gave much the same teachings, they chose to return each year and listen and learn and go on with their lives writing, composing, sculpting and painting about what mattered.

Any artist informed by AbEx artists is also likely to be informed by the teachings of Suzuki

…asking us to question ourselves instead of settling into complacency, to open ourselves instead of closing down around what we already know, and to embarrass ourselves instead of worrying about what other people think.[12]

Are we too smart for that now? The evidence suggests otherwise. The whitewash of white-goods swooshed America cleanly towards the latter half of the century and us with them, arguably to our detriment. And Iraq’s, Afghanistan’s and now Syria’s (this is the short list).

What will matter to you in the last minutes…in the aftermath of the phone call, the diagnosis, the accident or the exceedingly bad news? Suddenly, there is only space where mind was and nothing with which to reason, suitably, illogically named failed space.[13] When painting, O’Connor operates in failed space. Logic does not live here.

Woolf questioned reliance on logic and the illusion of security this brings. Now is life very solid or very shifting? She asked…This has gone on forever; goes down to the bottom of the world – this moment I stand on. Also it is transitory, flying, diaphanous.[14] Aware of the abyss, O’Connor reaches instead for the poetic and all its painterly possibilities, from the most gentle caress of a woman’s cheek reminding us of our tender hearts, to our embarrassment at human imperfection such as when someone’s fly is accidentally left unzipped.

Are we embarrassed by the poetic? Think of Roy’s (Rutger Hauer) last minutes in Blade Runner – even Replicants (cyborgs) can be poets.[15] In varying degrees, we all experience the same kinds of desires to create, express, reach, touch, inspire, love and move. At a bar in the fifties, Franz Kline said ‘You know what creating really is? To have the capacity to be embarrassed.’[16] Very soon, none of this will matter.

Do we go shopping now? To paint is a different response, when hearts become hardened from the repeated exposure to images serving as evidence for shocking events, events we are powerless to amend. Painting on these covers says NO to history repeating itself even as it repeats, and yes to the possibilities of paint, of freedom.


Dr Suzanne Moss, 2015

This review has been submitted for the ANCA Writing Prizes, in the category ‘An essay (published or unpublished) written on a theme of relevance to contemporary art by a writer resident in the Canberra region in 2015.′ Submissions can be made for the ANCA Writing Prizes up until 5pm 20 November 2015.


[1] Paul Virilio, Art & Fear. London: Continuum, 2003, 24.

[2] cited 6.11.15

[3] The mural was painted by The Art Lords of Kabul on a concrete barricade in a Kabul street.

[4] “The Concise Oxford Dictionary Ninth Edition,” ed. Della Thompson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 116.

[5] Michael Fried, Courbet’s Realism (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1990), 6.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Michael Podro, “Orientation in Rembrandt,” in Depiction, ed. Michael Podro (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).

[8] John Berger, Hold Everything Dear. Dispatches on Survival and Resistance. New York: Pantheon Books, 2007.

[9] Walter Benjamin in his famous essay ‘Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ noted that the original work of art possessed a kind of energy he described as ‘aura’.

[10] Eckhart Tolle, The Art of Presence. Boulder, Colorado: Sounds True, 2007.

[11] This is a very old concept from the Ancient Sumerian myth of Inanna and Ereshkigal, often discussed in literature related to creativity.

[12] Mark Epstein, “Meditation as Art/Art as meditation” in MJ Jacob & J Baas, Learning Mind, Experience into Art. Chicago: School of the Art Institute of Chicago, 2009, 55.

[13] Oriah Mountain Dreamer, Your Heart’s Prayer. Sounds True: Boulder, Colorado, 2002

[14] Virginia Woolf, Diary, III, London: Bloomsbury, 4th January, 1929, p. 218

[15] Ridley Scott, Blade Runner, Warner Bros. Movies, 1982

[16] Franz Kline quoted by Philip Guston in Mark Epstein, op. cit., 51.