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Art

A Star Is Born

O'Connor Blends Myth and Mundane Settings for an Original Mix

Mark Clark's photographic construction "Edifice"
In the Flesh: Caleb O'Connor paintings such as "King David" expressively capture the human form.

By Mike Giuliano | Posted 4/4/2001

Paintings by Caleb O'Connor, sculpture by Mark Melonas, photographic constructions by Mark Clark, and an installation by Cyriaco Lopes

School 33 Art Center through April 20

Caleb O'Connor, Cyriaco Lopes, Mark Melonas, Mark Clark

A talented young artist sometimes appears on the scene so dramatically that all a critic can do is reach for the superlatives. Caleb O'Connor, who is all of 22 years old, will receive his bachelor's degree from the Maryland Institute, College of Art (MICA) next month. Although he has shown his work in student exhibits at MICA, the Gordon Center for Performing Arts in Owings Mills, and Washington, D.C.'s Gallery K, his one-man painting show at the School 33 Art Center amounts to his local unveiling.

O'Connor has arrived on the scene fully armed--quite literally, because his large, allegorical paintings often feature the artist and his friends wearing medieval-style armor, wielding swords, and looking ready for battle. Not every figure is a knight in shining armor; some are centaurs. Moreover, that mythological mix of man and horse isn't the only odd mixture going on here. O'Connor's myth-oriented subject matter often occupies a suitably bucolic setting but sometimes is set in what appears to be a rowhouse.

It may not be entirely clear where the artist is heading with this heady mix, but attention must be paid on both technical and thematic levels. For one thing, this guy knows how to paint. If you've ever been tempted to bemoan the current state of figurative painting, rest assured that some young artists can do more than a fair likeness. Individual personalities come across crisply here, and the paint handling is mature for an artist so young. One might occasionally wonder about passages of brushwork--why smooth here and brusque there?--but those are quibbles.

O'Connor handles autobiographical and mythological themes in the seven oil paintings displayed. In "Self Portrait as Centaur," he does both in the same painting. Pulling his girlfriend into the equation, "Ruth and I" depicts the armor-clad artist standing next to a nude woman in a room that's presumably right here in Baltimore. Such compositions are inherently attention-grabbing, especially when the paintings are so big and so beautifully painted. Perhaps his tactics are a tad facile: All that gleaming armor and flesh has immediate sensory appeal, but there may not be a whole lot of psychological depth beneath it. But, considering these paintings were all created within the past year, the artist deserves the benefit of the doubt as to where he's taking us with this series. O'Connor seems to be pursuing a few related directions at once. "Self Portrait as Centaur" and "Ruth and I" indicate a strong desire to take ancient motifs and graft them onto modern situations. This is a promising area that easily could lead to future fusions of traditional and contemporary material.

In other paintings, O'Connor seems to get his creative rush more from martial encounters set in some distant place--or at least different place than our mundane reality. "Day Before Battle," probably the most powerful painting in the show, has an Old Master-ish compositional confidence. There are several figures here, but most of the space is occupied by a bulky, armor-clad, sword-equipped soldier seated in the foreground. His meaty hands are among the pictorial elements that make it seem like he's right in front of you; and although his eyes are closed and he's resting, you feel like he could spring into Schwarzenegger-scale action at any moment. What O'Connor impressively conveys here and in several other paintings is a scene that is simultaneously aggressive and contemplative.

In his most ambitious martial painting, "Centaur Battle," the mythological critters swing swords, strangle each other, and otherwise hack at each other in a nocturnal, woodsy setting. There's nothing contemplative about this all-out battle. It's fun to watch so much R-rated violence, but the painting itself doesn't quite work, in large part because it's comprised of four wooden panels that are visibly and somewhat awkwardly joined together. The figurative painting is polished, but the construction unfortunately calls attention to itself.

O'Connor's exhibit expressively captures what we're like as flesh-and-blood creatures. This is the hyper-realist interest in showing you where skin is white, where it's more in the pink to purple range, and where it's so damn raw and ugly looking that even a slaughterhouse worker would wince. In "King David," a modern domestic interior is dominated by a fleshy naked man, viewed from the rear. It's not a pretty sight. This is the kind of creepy flesh you'd expect to see in a painting by Francis Bacon or Lucian Freud.

With so much already going for O'Connor and so much potential, it'll be interesting to see what mythological and personal narratives lie ahead for this artist.

Also exhibiting in School 33's Gallery I is Mark Melonas, whose mixed-media sculptures all relate to the human body. Indeed, the pieces in his "Guard" series are concrete casts made from the artist's body and meant to be worn. "Shut," for instance, is a concrete slab molded to fit neatly over his eyes and nose, with a leather strap to keep this rather heavy face mask in place; an accompanying photograph shows the mask in use. A pessimistic message one can take away from this and similar pieces is that we often go around blocking our senses and putting up shields between ourselves and others.

Some of the pieces in the show are meant to be viewer-interactive. Most appealing is "Between," in which you're invited to insert both your hands into the gallery wall through the 10 finger-size holes drilled into it. In fact, your fingers can even poke through to the other side, where perhaps they'll startle somebody looking at O'Connor's paintings. Melonas' sculptural work is all about physical encounters between the artist and his artwork, and in some instances encounters between spectators and his artwork. To simply look at his art isn't much as visual pleasures go, but to interact with his it has enough visceral appeal to make for a lively if disturbing experience.

Upstairs at School 33, Mark Clark has an exhibit called Breaking Phenomena: Excavations and Elevations. The show is made up of photographic constructions in which photos of landscape imagery have been significantly altered via the application of acrylic paint, charcoal, ink, and plaster, and also by placing this altered imagery on roughly linked wooden panels. (One piece is aptly named "Tectonics.") Besides using panels that resemble the earth's geological plates, the artist often has the panels' surfaces cracked, as if an earthquake has just hit. The imagery features bones, fires, columns of smoke, and other primal stuff set against grassy and woodsy backgrounds.

Clark's exploration of doctored photographic imagery has been worth tracking over the years, but this latest body of work seems more compelling technically than thematically. Although the components are deftly brought together, seeing multiple variations on a flame or column of smoke rising up from the earth might not spark every viewer's imagination as much as it evidently inspired the artist's. It's hard to predict whether an artist can get an audience to share his or her obsessions, so maybe some viewers will be drawn to these flames.

School 33's Installation Space is filled with a work by Cyriaco Lopes, "The Classroom," in which the Brazilian-born artist has filled a room with battered old wooden desks arranged before a video screen. The screen is filled with didactic content: Slides bear multicultural images and printed words that question stereotypical white American assumptions about the cultural identity of our country. It's certainly relevant to remind viewers that the United States and, for that matter, the Americas in general are made up of many colors and cultures. But this is a superficial slide show; your time would be better spent at home reading the recently released data from the 2000 Census.

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