PRINT January 2001

Bob Nickas

IF THE PROM SCENE FROM CARRIE HAD BEEN STAGED by Jack Smith as an episode of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, it might have looked something like Amy O’Neill’s Post-Prom, an installation for a group show in Dijon in 1999. Instead of blood pouring down, there was a confetti rain machine. A rainbow of balloons hung limply overhead, and beer bottles rolled underfoot. The decorations had a homemade, happy-sad authenticity. Every so often during the opening, an unseen force shook the refreshment table. When people dropped a vote for prom king and queen into the ballot box, a hand would reach up (like Thing from The Addams Family) to shake theirs. When the hand poured drinks, glasses would inevitably overflow. At the end of the evening, O’Neill innocently emerged from beneath the table, perhaps unaware that she was still wearing a bat mask. The piece was a creepy tour de force and might have established the artist as our own Flaming Creature. But Post-Prom, like so much of O’Neill’s best work, was realized in Europe and seen by few of her fellow Americans.

Glacier and Murdered Snowball (both 1997) were made, appropriately, for shows in Switzerland, where O’Neill is currently living. In Glacier, she brought together Caspar David Friedrich’s icebergs, Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, and Mark Twain’s travelogue A Tramp Abroad. As compacted as snow in a glacier, O’Neill’s sources were given sculptural form—around a working hot tub—and overlapped in unexpected ways: the soaring, majestic ice caves from the Superman movie as sublime as any painted scene; its characters and story as fictive as Twain’s “firsthand” account of a trip made mostly in his imagination. The headier side of her pop-comic sensibility is nowhere more apparent than in Murdered Snowball, a Styrofoam-and-resin replica continuously “melting” to the slow flicker of strobe lights beneath the floorboards on which it rests: a little movie reduced to a kinetic freeze-frame.

Recently, New Yorkers got a chance to see O’Neill’s work, but as it appeared in a summer group show (“2º” at Spencer Brownstone Gallery), it came and went more quietly than it might have. Hermit Crab Hut, 2000, constructed from giant telephone-wire spools, was a re-creation of one of those Free-Hermit-Crab-With-Cage-Purchase stands you see on the boardwalk at the Jersey Shore. In place of live, crawling crustaceans, however, were seashells wearing sunglasses and miniature football helmets. (You can never get enough sunblock.) Kids at the opening were delighted, and O’Neill sold some toys for a dollar apiece—when the people from the gallery weren’t looking.

As founding editor of Index magazine and curator of almost forty shows in the United States and Europe over the past decade and a half, BOB NICKAS has long been an intrepid scout when it comes to new art and popular culture. His most recent show, “How is everything? Everything’s going to be. . . alright” (the title is taken from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey), goes up this month at Elizabeth Cherry Contemporary Art in Tucson, Arizona. Nickas’s Live Free or Die: Collected Writings 1985-1999 was recently published by Les Presses du Reel, Dijon.