New York

Robyn O'Neil


The landscapes in Robyn O’Neil’s multi-paneled and intricate drawings are vast, barren, and populated by middle-age men in dark sweatsuits who appear very small against their immense and intimidating backdrops. Not much grows in them apart from a few feathery bushes and twisted trees, beyond which ominous mountains rise up out of nothing. One sky is blank, oppressive in its absolute featurelessness; others portend stormy weather. A puff of smoke on the horizon could be a mushroom cloud.

In this inhospitable environment, O’Neil’s army of anonymous figures act out a contemporary Divine Comedy that is surprisingly rich in mordant humor, largely because what’s mapped out here, in animated overstatement, are not so much sins as varieties of unacceptable behavior, in particular the antisocial and anticivic transgressions of passivity and disengagement. In These moving bodies, these numb processions (all works 2005), the men move in a herd across the landscape, seemingly without will or purpose, while in Oh, how the heartless haunt us all they gaze out numbly at the viewer. The smaller panels that accompany certain works are much more akin to the passionate and violent activities catalogued by Dante; they hum with a busy damnation that Hieronymus Bosch and Sandow Birk would appreciate: Skeletons are piled in heaps; warring tribes brandish sticks and gloat over dead animals; bodies hang from trees. If the social critique of the larger panel has something in common with Goya’s “Los Caprichos,” 1799–80, the smaller panels take their cue from “Desastres de la Guerra” (Disasters of War), 1810–20. They are appended to the action (or lack of action) in the larger panels like scenes on a Northern Renaissance altarpiece, and their relationship to the larger panels remains open to different interpretations of cause and effect, narrative, satire, and cautionary tale. They may be seen as commentary, depicting the appropriate punishments for such lack of affect, or perhaps as a kind of subconscious for the work as a whole: the violent fantasies of the deceptively placid, or else, more disturbingly, the suppressed desires behind all those blank faces.

The failings of these sweatsuited figures are animated by their opposite in a large, five-panel drawing of men doing nothing more startling than getting along with each other. In As darkness falls on this heartless land, my brother holds tight my feeble hand—the centerpiece of the exhibition, and, even amidst all the transfixing violence, its most compelling work—a large group of men hug each other, perhaps in a sensitive masculine ritual, or simply in relief over having survived the apocalypse that has overwhelmed the rest of the show. Other figures, scattered across the bare landscape, sow seeds, share jokes, run together with hands clasped, frolic with a dog, sit cross-legged together, and (it is not hard to imagine) hash out the problems of the world in what might be an allegory of good government in the New Age.

But in the end, the resemblance of this ideal society to a utopian retreat is more chilling than reassuring. It’s a world of anodyne, nonspecific kindness—the sort that arises not from real feeling but out of something much more abstract and impersonal, even slightly sinister. As it turns out, we haven’t exchanged Inferno for Paradiso, just a different sort of hell.

Emily Hall