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Abstract Thinking

Art Review


Published March 21, 2007 at 4:00 a.m.


EXHIBIT: Brian O'Neill: New abstract and figurative paintings. Art Space 150 at The Men's Room, Burlington. Through April.

ARTWORK:"Here They Come" by Brian O'Neill

Brian O'Neill's exhibition at Art Space 150 - tucked in the light-filled Burlington salon The Men's Room - is really two shows in one. The first is a body of objective work that includes portraits, figures and a series of eight floral pieces focusing on phalaenopsis orchids. The other comprises 13 nonobjective canvases and one 24-inch-tall abstract steel sculpture. While both approaches are quite successful, the artist's forays into abstraction are particularly so.

Phalaenopsis orchids are native to Southeast Asia and are said to resemble moths in flight. O'Neill's "Phalaenopsis 1" is a naturalistic 12-by-12-inch oil on canvas portraying one such white blossom on a silvery gray background. The remaining seven pieces are of the same scale and composition - with the flower's vertical stem down the left half of the picture - but the images are progressively more abstract. The lines in "Phalaenopsis 2," for example, are more languid, and a complex harmony of pink and turquoise fills the background. As the series progresses, O'Neill's emphasis shifts from simply rendering the flower to practicing greater chromatic experimentation.

Similarly, his best figurative works are the most abstract. In the 24-by-30-inch male nude entitled "Matt," O'Neill's approach to figuration is reminiscent of Cezanne's. He has built the figure's Caucasian flesh tones into a rugged patchwork of planes. The model's pose is also solid: He stands with his left leg on a stool, elbow resting on the knee, creating a strong vertical axis. The background is organized on a slight diagonal to contrast with the figure's verticality.

O'Neill really hits his stride with the 13 nonobjective canvasses. All are vertically oriented and modest in size - 20 by 24 inches. "Rhapsody in Gray" is an aggregation of about two dozen squares and rectangles described in various tones of the titular color. But the grays are deceptive, because each was layered over a more vibrant hue. A thin gray painted over green is optically different than the same gray painted over orange. That kind of subtle coloration is what makes O'Neill's abstractions really sing.

Not all are as angular as "Rhapsody in Gray," however. The oil titled "Beyond Sight" is primarily made up of curved, light-blue lines falling from the top to the bottom of the painting. The lines are loosely untangled over a textural gray field; yellow, salmon and white dots punctuate the field like dust seen under an electron microscope.

Most of O'Neill's abstractions combine curves and angularity. In "Here They Come," thick forms in dark blue and black float over a hazy background of warmer hues, from magenta to acidic greens. O'Neill scumbles and glazes with abandon to layer his colors. He also seems to maintain a "dialogue" with each painting as it develops, allowing forms to rise organically from his juxtapositions of color.

The work titled "A Long Time Ago" has the most translucent areas. Reds of varied intensity are layered over broad swaths of gray. Yellow, cerulean blue and a patch of purple in the upper portion of the composition brighten the shades of red.

O'Neill seems to be an accomplished sculptor as well as a strong painter. His 24-inch-high rusted-steel abstraction "Tango" has integrity by virtue of its negative spaces. Half-inch plates of steel were cut and recombined into a lively, unified form interpreting tango rhythms, like a three-dimensional snapshot that captures the blurred movement of the dancers' costumes.

It would be nice to see more of O'Neill's sculptures sometime - this one is as remarkable as his paintings. Meanwhile, there's still plenty of time to catch the current exhibition - it's been so well received that the salon has extended it through April.