Brendan O’Connell, The ‘Walmart Painter,’ Turns Abstract
One of Brendan O’Connell’s foot-square paintings currently on display in Washington Depot.
By Robert Ayers
You wouldn’t normally think of going to a real estate office to see an art exhibit. But whether or not you are looking to buy a place in Litchfield County, you will find a visit to The Matthews Group in Washington Depot well worth it. There’s art there you shouldn’t miss.
Brendan O’Connell, the artist who made this wildly varied array of small abstract paintings, turns out to be one of the most interesting characters you are ever likely to run into, not least because he enjoys a healthy celebrity for making a totally different kind of art.
Applauded in media as diverse as USA Today, NPR, The New Yorker and The Colbert Report, O’Connell is the successful painter of brightly colored pictures of the interior of Walmart stores. But in truth, he never intended to be a painter at all. In fact, it was to break the tedium of trying to write a novel that he first decided to have a crack at drawing. “I was 22 and I picked up a pencil and taught myself to draw,” is how he remembers it now.
By 1996 he was showing in New York City as a fully fledged abstract painter — in fact, all of his shows until 2006 were abstract — but he found himself frustrated. “It seemed as if only five people in New York knew the difference between good and bad abstract art,” he recalls. “My career was in the toilet.”
He met his wife, the celebrated landscape painter Emily Buchanan (whose watercolor was featured in the White House’s 2014 holiday card) in 1997, and they moved to Litchfield County a couple of years later. It was when his daughter was born that the change came, though it came indirectly. He decided to switch from oil to acrylic paint because he didn’t want the baby breathing in toxic fumes, and in order to get the hang of this new material he started doing portraits of great artists he admired. “I was a closet figurative painter,” he says with a smile. Then he did a series of paintings of people doing routine day-to-day tasks, and then, to discover new source material, “Someone suggested I follow somebody out into the world” and photograph what they did. The very first day he found himself inside a Walmart.
One of O’Connell’s celebrated Walmart paintings.
O’Connell is happy to admit that he happened upon his most successful art by chance. It makes a refreshing change to encounter an artist who doesn’t imagine that everything in one’s work stems from conscious decisions. Contrasting his attitude with Andy Warhol’s conception of the studio as a factory, he explains, “I think of the studio as being more like a garden: you put different plants together and they cross fertilize, just like you put a portrait next to an abstract painting and they serve one another.” Instead of mass production, he pursues constant experiment and rule breaking.
So it comes as no surprise to discover that he started these small abstract paintings at about the same time as the first Walmart paintings. He talks of them as a laboratory of color, and it would seem that he uses them to try out ideas, but it’s clear that they have their own rationale as well. He isn’t interested in giving them titles, and he rarely records the date they were made, almost as if this information might obscure their purely pictorial logic.
The artist, second from right, with Alec Baldwin, Emily Buchanan and actor Josh Charles at his NYC show.
But in terms of how they are painted — what colors he uses, or what shapes, or how the paint is applied, or whether the paint edges are hard or soft or straight or curved or wobbly — the possibilities are endless. No two of these paintings are even nearly the same. He even has the little square panels machine cut so that they can be hung with any of their four sides at the top. He only regards them as finished when they work equally well in all four directions, and he is happy to let their owners decide which they prefer.
Perhaps it’s the energy that derives from this sense of endless possibility that makes this show of paintings so uplifting. That and the fact that they seem to offer a more private view of how a famous artist works, even when things are turned on their head. Smiling at the irony, O’Connell puts it like this: “Now I’m a closet abstract painter.”
Abstract Work by Iconic American Painter Brendan O’Connell
On view through the end of May.
The Matthews Group
4 Green Hill Road, Washington Depot, CT
Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday - Saturday; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday.