Last week I started a Q&A with Robyn O’Neil, who is included in the American Folk Art Museum show Dargerism: Contemporary Artists and Henry Darger. We’re talking about influence and how the work of other artists finds its way into O’Neil’s work. Here are parts one, two, and three. This is the final part.
MAN: So speaking of weather in your drawing, the Courbet and its influence: I think it’s interesting that there’s no real evidence of wind in the Courbet, which is titled, possibly or probably posthumously Gust of Wind [above], but in your drawing there’s definitely wind: the grass in the lower left-hand corner. I’m guessing that’s the title of the painting creeping into your thinking?
RO’N: Yeah. Let me think about that.
MAN: I mean, if you look at the storm and where it seems to be going, and the trees and how they’re not exactly blowing… well, something doesn’t compute. If anything in the painting is actually moving, it seems to be moving in opposite directions from the storm, which is Courbet mainly composing a massive diagonal to dramatize his fictional landscape.
RO’N: You’re right, the [vegetation] would have to be much more feathery. The treatment of everything in the painting… it would have been more obvious that there was a gust of wind coming through. I probably wouldn’t have seen wind were it not for the title. I wouldn’t have seen wind as the main issue in mine or in the Courbet. But yeah. It got me going.
I think it’s funny because those are tricks you can play when you draw or you paint trees to make them maybe look like they’re blowing. And yeah, Courbet has his tree blowing in the opposite direction. But I knew that just kind of counting from the corners, just technically that’s the way to go about it.
As a viewer of the scene in my drawing, it looks like you’re peering into HUGE pieces of grass — they’re up to my thigh or something. [Ed: Staring into the blankness, they fell in order to begin, is 76.5 inches by 144 inches. It's at left, and a detail is below.] So I thought it would be even more threatening to have the grass like that. It definitely doesn’t look safe. The pastoral landscape which I’ve drawn as still and serene is really a trick. Some of the wind is coming from behind the viewer with the way it hits the grass.
MAN: The tree in the Courbet has recently fascinated me, probably because when the Fontainebleau show was recently at the NGA I noticed that there’s some pretty serious art historical fudge on whether Gust of Wind is a Fontainebleau landscape or not. I’d bet not. Houston says yes, the NGA suggested, uh, no. I’d bet no – and my guess is that Courbet saw a Ruisdael print and based the painting on it. It’s funny – Gust of Wind has or had never been considered a major Courbet – Gerstle Mack, Courbet’s biographer, never mentioned it.
RO’N: There’s one distinct tree in my piece that may be a very, very minor hint at the Courbet tree. The van Ruisdael — I know what you’re talking about. The trees are pretty much identical. Maybe we artist think we’re real clever – just like the big diagonal weather in my painting gets at a part of the Courbet, I go the opposite direction with the tree, and hide it. We artists kind of disguise influence that way.
MAN: The last thing I wanted to ask you about is this big, dominant horizontal in your drawing. It’s implied in the Courbet, behind the landscape and the hill on the right and all, but it’s not even remotely visible.
RO’N: That’s a good question. It has a lot to do with where my work has gone from the beginning of the days when I was making large scale work. I started making work that had so much to do with mountainscape and traditional landscape-type imagery in the background and using that as a stage set for what was happening with ‘my men,’ whether they’re throwing a ball or fighting or killing each other or whatever. All of those things happened amidst a romantic landscape. If you did a timeline of my work it all was very mountainous and you never would have seen a flat landscape like that.
Then as the weather began enveloping what was happening in my work, the mountains — they were always snowy landscapes and the snow began to melt and the mountains began to crumble and the men just got smaller and smaller and more and more in the dist.
There are no trees in my new drawing and in the early days of my work it was all about trees and mountains. The skies became bigger. The skies would be a tiny strata at the top of my drawing — and here, now the horizontal line is way low, which normally you don’t do if you have mountains. So basically it was knowing that the work was starting to be about nature winning over the men. It’s more stark and bleak to have nothing.
MAN: So the MFA Houston should obviously acquire your drawing. You live in Houston, it may be the best painting in the museum. But they haven’t yet?
RO’N: (Laughing.) Tell them to!