American Gothic

Robyn O'Neil

In her epic graphite drawings, Houston artist Robyn O'Neil taps into the darker undercurrents of American nature, both environmental and human. Her artful depictions, which contrast dark figures against stark snowy settings, could at first be mistaken for classic Saturday Evening Post illustrations. But on closer inspection, her themes have more in common with Poe's gothic tales. Though she flirts with odd juxtapositions, O'Neil's pictures lack the humor of Edward Gorey's oddball mishaps (large vases falling on unwitting flappers or an abecedary of curious deaths to children). But the artists share a canny attention to subtle detail. As Ye the Sinister Creep and Feign, Those Once Held Become Those Now Slain is a multipaneled scene of a doomed American icon, a buffalo, in a temporary moment of safety, atop a tree stump. The incantationlike titles O'Neil uses simply add to her work's unsettling tone. Her ominous circles of uniformly track-suited men doing strange things bring to mind Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery"—human nature at its most twisted. Some figures hang from trees, echoing iconic imagery from a shameful past, while others kneel hooded like modern torture victims. In these pictures, it's sometimes hard to say what is more frightening—the external or the internal landscapes. I think the latter wins out here. Like the misleading quietude of a Charles Burchfield painting, the gnarled branches of the wintry trees reflect the inner rages of these seemingly placid personages in the snow. Another image that comes to mind are the 39 "Heaven's Gate" cult members who took their lives en masse in a lofty San Diego suburb in 1997, all dressed for the next world or planet, in matching tennis shoes and shapeless dark clothing. This is the America Robyn O'Neil plunders. We'd surely like for these images not to be as familiar as they are.

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