Winston Wachter presents new mixed media works from artist Piper O’Neill at Marking Time. The works range from collage in O’Neill’s established style to bronze and chrome sculpture to neon signage. As in previous works, her collages are made with pattern paper cut and colored and layered into a textured, naturally patinated surface that references craft and the body itself.
The meeting of past and present, the physical and mental state of aging is a consistent theme in O’Neill’s oeuvre, and the subjects in Marking Time come less from a personal universe or vision, but rather a collective and manufactured memory of “simpler” times. Her typical female figures (often a blend of child and crone, world-weary around the eyes, Victorian in dress) are replaced by moon-eyed kewpies, cows, pageant girls and rabbits inspired by figurines from the Depression-era—by no means a simpler time, but one that bears political relevance today and whose aesthetic continues to fascinate. It feels both distant and familiar.
The prevailing figure of Marking Time is not female, but a square-jawed but infantilized cowboy. As a symbol of western expansion, rugged individualism, sentiments of freedom, the birth of America and also the lawlessness—the front-line of Western civilization and brutal suppression of the First Nations—the cowboy is a loaded and complicated figure, but often trivialized and treated now as an archaism. The cowboy is generally bygone, even as a schoolboy fascination. In the installation Don’t Fence Me In, O’Neill’s stocky, shiny icons of boyish brutality and colonialism are repeated and framed by floral patterns and nursery-friendly silhouettes—a juxtaposition with an ambiguous effect. Is it a marriage of traditionally masculine and feminine aesthetics? Is it an encapsulation of American empire—quaint hearth and stoic frontier in combined glittering household gods? Is it a comment on the glossing of a nation’s genocidal imperialism? On the inevitable domestication of even the most wild, lawless things? The cowboy may be a symbol of rugged individualism, but here it is neither rugged, nor individual.
When the Hollywood Western peaked in popularity and the cowboy was one of the reigning icons of entertainment, the reality had already been sanitized and infantilized. The moral ambiguity had already been reduced to clear lines of Good and Evil and even Native Americans had been grouped as either Savages or domesticated sidekicks like Tonto. The Lone Ranger (which got an abysmally-reviewed cinematic reboot last year) was one of the most prominent icons, forever in perfectly tailored, spotless, sometimes flamboyantly colored outfits—pajamas utterly alien to the real frontier. In this alone, one observed the frontier being dissolved into suburbs, its players interred in candy-colored toy chests. History becomes entertainment and entertainment becomes the visible element of culture, while history—the reality of it, accurate renditions of it—disappears into the sunset.
Icons, too, fade and become knock-offs and kitsch. At the far end of the gallery, a sign featuring “The Lone Stranger” glows with a bent and broken halo around it, the torso of the masked man braced for action in cyan and yellow hues, like posters left too long in the sun. But as ever, O’Neill punctuates the bright, glaring, masculine force with something wistful and sweet—a bouquet of flowers on the lower edge and the words “Forget-me-not.” Faded glory, faded reality, giving way to a haze of nostalgia in our culture is in some ways our coming to grips with our individual mortality, growing obsolete and then forgotten.
O’Neill references all of this quietly without making an overt political case. It is a sociological case, documenting and re-examining these cultural elements through the most seemingly benign and banal—yet disturbingly dysmorphic—figures. In doing so, one better grasps the present. The era of Manifest Destiny was paid for with blood as it further forged American identity and standing as a superpower in the first half of the 20th century, and its icons became heroes, celebrities, and in becoming part of the marketplace also inevitably became passe. This cycle continues, decade by decade, and in more closely evaluating the “material detritus” of it (to quote the gallery’s statement), O’Neill allows the viewer to approach the system with neither nostalgia nor cynicism but a sense that relevance may be fleeting, but significance is not, as we are all still living in the world forged by the era that also made these artifacts—a world afraid of being forgotten even as it wears a mask.
Marking Time is in display at Winston Wachter through February 27.