August 19, 2010 ARTS AND ENTERTAINMENT » ART
Mitch O’Connell’s hilariously kitschy, tongue-in-cheek art sticks a pitchfork in the concepts of good, evil and everything in between
The Devil Made Him Do It
by LAURA HUTSON
Practice Makes Perfect
Through Aug. 28 at Twist Art Gallery
At Twist Art Gallery's First Saturday Art Crawl reception on Aug. 7, four tattoo artists, outfitted in Mexican luchador masks, tattooed a woman in the middle of the gallery space. Artist Mitch O'Connell, armed with a blue Sharpie, drew ships and anchors onto the forearms of several art-savvy Nashvillians. It's this alliance between fine art and lowbrow culture that makes O'Connell a fitting choice for Twist's fourth anniversary show.
Twist is known for being inclusive, working from within the Nashville art community to build a haven for creativity. Artists like working with Twist owner Beth Gilmore because she doesn't put limits on them, and she respects the sometimes unusual process it takes to create a good show. "We want to go down that rabbit hole," she says.
The First Saturday Art Crawl has raised awareness of the caliber and scope of contemporary art here in Nashville, and its success is due in large part to Gilmore's emphasis on accessibility. Four years after downtown gallery owners began hosting simultaneous openings on the first Saturday of every month, Twist is the only Arcade gallery from the original roster still in operation. O'Connell's lighthearted and sardonic exhibit Practice Makes Perfect, on view through Aug. 28, is perfectly suited for the gallery's playfully anticlimactic celebration.
O'Connell creates art that makes fun of itself, wavering somewhere between sentiment and cynicism. His four "light" paintings appropriate images that are at once over-the-top and banal. Semitransparent photographs of idyllic waterfalls and streams are backed by motorized light boxes that, with the flip of a switch, provide faux flowing water and chirping bird sounds. O'Connell took the kitsch appeal that already existed in these flea market finds and magnified it by painting pink poodles on fire, rotary telephones and excessively cute dolls throwing dice down the falls.
This amalgamation of contradictory images roots O'Connell's work firmly in the tradition of pop surrealism and lowbrow art. His slick 1950s aesthetic is a perfect backdrop for surrealist imagery, partly because it was during this time that psychoanalysis, with its emphasis on dreams and the subconscious, was coming into vogue, but also due to the deeply repressed nature of mainstream American culture during the Baby Boom. Everything O'Connell borrows from this time period, from little girls praying at their beds to prepackaged salami, looks sickly sweet in a way that just doesn't exist in contemporary culture. Today the public is much more savvy — our advertisements are always winking back at us, but '50s consumer culture was never in on the joke.
These paintings are all about being Cool with a capital C. They're more attitude than commentary, more style than depth. Far from being a shortcoming, this Cool is the direct descendant of Dadaist social commentary and Warholian detachment. O'Connell is fully aware of this connection, and in "The Melting Man" even pays homage to one of the first pop artists, Richard Hamilton, with a nod to his Tootsie Pop-holding body builder.
But just try to find the art-history reference/reverence in "Jesus Sez, Satan Sez," a pair of toilet seats that O'Connell has painted into a joke about the eternal struggle between good and evil. On one, Jesus, with a raised stigmata-marked hand, asks that the user "leave the seat down." On the other, Satan winks and impishly implores the user to "leave the seat up." This gag is exemplary of the benign immorality that permeates O'Connell's work — he uses sinister imagery sarcastically, not to spook, but to subvert. All the evil is in quotation marks: In "Comb It Pretty," the devil is a man with a clueless expression wearing makeup; in "The Real Me," he's a kid from a Sears and Roebuck catalog modeling a Halloween costume. With "Satan Sez," O'Connell pokes fun at the idea of evil — leaving the toilet seat up will more likely result in a pissed-off wife than hellfire and damnation. You can almost hear the evil cackle coming from underneath the seat.
Filled with skulls, demons and scary clowns, O'Connell's art is undeniably funny. But his own ironic distancing from his subject matter is the real punch line. His paintings spill over with naked women — from flirty pinups to R. Crumb-like hyper-sexualized beasts — yet he's a well-mannered gentleman and proud father, not a lecherous playboy. Although he is celebrated among tattoo artists and aficionados, he remains ink-free. Though he's the center of attention at a crowded art gallery made up like a tattoo parlor, and though dozens of people proudly display their hand-drawn Mitch O'Connell tattoos on trips to adjoining galleries, O'Connell remains an underdog, influential but untouched, and above all, Cool.