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Pat O’Neill’s recent show at Cherry & Martin distilled his prolific career down to a modestly sized gallery exhibition—tricky for an artist checking as many formal (and mostly two-dimensional) boxes as O’Neill. O’Neill’s career began to gather steam in the 1970s, an era defined by a pluralism born out of the paucity and exhaustion of existing practices as well as the ascendancy of nascent new media. Regarding the latter, O’Neill worked as an early pioneer of film and video art, earning “possibly the first [MA] in art based on moving-image work ” at UCLA.
Opening the exhibition was a slide projection piece, In Betweens (2015), in which one slide faded slowly into another as excerpts of text displayed brief, half-formed sentiments alternately hilarious (“you took my fucking parking space”), and clunkily poignant (“she was so sweet and dainty”). The text displays as discrete, durational sentence fragments over the slides, its subject matter culled from dialogues absent a narrative anchor. Equally rambling are the images projected in tandem: graffiti, concrete, the general absence of nature, the general presence of nature, etc. The combination of text and image creates a series of moody set pieces, which evoke at best a peculiar and ultimately unknowable experience of an absent subject, and at worst the un-jelled intensity of an early MFA.
(When I arrived to the exhibition, the projector wasn’t working correctly, but who knew? I watched the same slide of concrete rubble act as the source/background for discontinuous text streams for about 5 minutes, thinking it was absurd that someone would go to the trouble to illuminate only one slide with two projectors present; an endearingly durational riff on minimalist and conceptual art.)
O’Neill works as a maker of moving images with width, height, and time. Depth within the moving image is an alluded illusion, like the animation of shadows dancing on a cave wall (instead of just the wall). In Betweens celebrates this in a curious manner: slow-fading in new of images as the old recede beneath stable yet fleeting text.
Distinct and parallel was Saugus Series (1974), a three-channel video installation created using an optical printer. Rather than the illusory depth and warm nostalgia of In Betweens, Saugus Series exhibits cold crispness, curious flatness, and a wandering attention span. Memory here is freed from the slides’ specificity; basking instead in associative passages of layered imagery and striking, durational sections of flickering colored lines.
With jerky yet cleanly edged—even artificial—figurations in its initial section, later passages of teeming, mesmerizing color become all the more striking. The abstract passages buzz with activity like the whispering static of a television screen. Saugus Series achieved something that the overall exhibition otherwise lacked: contrast, of the sort making more vivid that on either side of its absent middle ground.
The remainder of the main room was filled largely by the exhibition’s two sculptures, White Double Sweep (1966) and Black Sweep (1012 Pico Series) (1967): mounded forms heavily glossed, and plastic in appearance. Black Sweep was the larger of the two; positioned on the floor, it rose slightly from its low perch, curving gently like a conch pastry from a Mexican bakery. Marooned on a plywood life raft and anemically weighty, Black Sweep related loosely and formally to one of the exhibition’s handful of drawings (Accounts Receivable Drawing, 1990), but otherwise felt out of place. A sister video toward which the sculpture bowed, Two Sweeps (1979), consisted of nothing more than the metronomic movement of two color-shifting dots.
Other than playing a useful role in the exhibition’s flow of space, both sculptures seemed tentative, even dull. A line may, but needn’t, be drawn between the plasticity and streamlined (or neutered) movement of these earlier pieces and O’Neill’s later film works; a thin, simply temporal linkage, absent the specificity of intent. Two Sweeps, though hypnotic as the hum of a refrigerator, suffers a similar fate, despite its later date.
On the other hand, the evocative and mutually enriching encounters between media and time in the O’Neill show, though occasional, were genuinely striking. More literally, O’Neill creates work that acts both for and against transparency, concerning itself with the face value and the reversal of two key concepts: the transparency of film and the opacity of experience. As experience attempts transparency, and film achieves opacity in O’Neill’s hands, a curious and uniquely evocative body of work remains in its wake.
 a device enabling the filmmaker to layer opaque imagery while ‘keying out’ all but a specified portion of each individual slide – similar to the green screen technique employed by your local weatherperson