Frye Art Museum

Robyn O’Neil

April 29 – July 30, 2006

Like Hieronymous Bosch (c. 1450–1516) and Pieter Breughel (c. 1525–1569) before her, Robyn O'Neil creates richly populated epic drawings that are preoccupied with the spiritual and moral questions of our time. O'Neil's work has become known for its penetrating yet metaphorical exploration of such dark themes as the apocalypse, evolution, mass disaster, and extinction. These subjects are at once timeless and timely and in O'Neil's images, the age-old battle between good and evil rages on.

Death has always been part and parcel of O'Neil's various themes, but in her more recent works, death itself has become the driving allegorical force. The artist admits to being somewhat obsessed with dangers lurking around every corner and having always worried about the well-being of her family members; those fears and feelings dominate her drawings.

The protagonists of O'Neil's meticulous landscapes are often middle-age men wearing track suits and sneakers, their lumpy forms suggesting that their uniform was selected for comfort rather than fitness. These men act up and behave badly, but they also show compassion and love for their fellow man. We find men hanging from gallows and trees in varying degrees of undress, raising weapons at one another, and being subjected to humiliation. However, we also find them seeking solace in the landscape or helping one another in a variety of ways.

O'Neil's drawings depict wildlife both as majestic creatures and as victims of man. In one work a bison stands tentatively, trapped and stranded atop a monolithic dead tree stump while in others the rhythms of wildlife remain intact: a moose looks regally over his domain, elk perform the ritual of locking horns, and flocks of birds energize and animate vast and open skies. Despite earth's best efforts, grim lifeless trees abound and yet hopeful signs appear: rainbows in several skies, and even starlight flickering on the sea.

The artist's large, complex, multipanel pieces are reminiscent of Renaissance altarpieces with their formal systems and implied hierarchies laying out a range of life's complexities for us to ponder. Smaller works allow us to delve deeper into particular realms. With harsh candor as well as loving compassion, O'Neil's drawings take on the ultimate issues that face us all.

Presenting a selection of O'Neil's drawings from 2004­ to 2005, Robyn O'Neil marks the first major museum exhibition of the artist's work. The exhibition is organized by Lynn Herbert, senior curator of the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, and is accompanied by a catalogue with an essay by Herbert, reproductions of exhibited work, and documentation of the artist's career.

Robyn O'Neil was organized by the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston and made possible by contributors to the Museum's Perspectives fund.

Image Credits:
Robyn O'Neil. As Ye the sinister / Creep and feign / Those once held / Become those now slain (detail), 2004. Graphite on paper. 3 panels; overall dimensions 90 x 150.75 inches. Collection Lawrence B. Beneson, Greenwich, Connecticut; courtesy Inman Gallery, Houston.
Robyn O'Neil. As Ye the sinister / Creep and feign / Those once held / Become those now slain, 2004. Graphite on paper. 3 panels; overall dimensions 90 x 150.75 inches. Collection Lawrence B. Beneson, Greenwich, Connecticut; courtesy Inman Gallery, Houston.
Robyn O'Neil. As darkness falls on this heartless land, my brother holds tight my feeble hand, 2005. Graphite on paper. 5 panels, overall dimensions 92.5 x 166 inches. Collection Charlotte and Bill Ford; courtesy Clementine Gallery, New York.
Robyn O'Neil. We are not okay, we cannot live like this anymore, 2005.
Graphite on paper.
32 x 40 inches.
Collection James and Maureen Dorment; courtesy Clementine Gallery, New York.
Robyn O'Neil. As Ye the sinister / Creep and feign / Those once held / Become those now slain (detail), 2004. Graphite on paper. 3 panels; overall dimensions 90 x 150.75 inches. Collection Lawrence B. Beneson, Greenwich, Connecticut; courtesy Inman Gallery, Houston.