“Beauty is the search for Truth.” Tom O’Neil quotes Plato and makes sure I write it down. I’ve met O’Neil twice now, both times at his studio, Against white walls he’s hung a little over a dozen paintings, some in groups, others alone. Some are recent, while others have been undergoing his process of revision for years. For the purpose of bringing a new audience to his work and into the studio, he’s agreed to bring me into a corner of his world and, over time, find some words that hint at the core of who and what he does as an artist. So, when I huddle out of the rain on a gray Friday in September, he asks me if I know the quote.
Beauty is the search for Truth. Beauty, for O’Neil, comes from his work, and his paintings amount to the search. Each piece documents a conversation played out between color and pattern on the painting surface, a physical and musical back and forth endlessly worked through a constantly assertive two-dimensional field. These dynamic planes offer us a window into O’Neil’s search by focusing on process, not representation. What I’d thought had been simple graphics actually contain, as I take the time to study his paintings, an intense, dynamic journey through a series of choices; the total effect, insistently abstract, is mesmerizing. I believe he wants me to get lost in the paintings, and pointedly eschews representational anchors that could belie their fundamental lack of conclusion. “They can’t take the search away from me,” he says. I get a feeling I may be one of the ‘they’; armed with a notebook, attempting to pin down in words what is inherently indefinable. He’s inviting me inside but reminding me that what he’s after isn’t found in a dictionary; his world is fluid, like his materials, and his malleable surfaces are alive because of it.
O’Neil’s work does not offer answers, nor does he want it to; he acknowledges that there is likely no end to his search. His paintings are explorations, dense layers of markings and paint that tell a story. He will not give us any clues, other than the paint itself, what that story is, or where it may take us. Because of paint’s fluidity, and the memory of canvas, O’Neil is free to turn back to a piece over months and years and reinvent his decisions, giving the viewer a piece of time, a signpost of where the search is taking him, and over series of paintings narratives seem to grow, even if the words aren’t there to pin them down.
We are an accumulation of our experiences, yet art, our vehicle to express some aspect of life, physical or impalpable, is usually presented as a impeccable product; the marks of its creation are carefully excised. O’Neil serves it raw. When he talks about his work he rubs his fingers on the canvas. I expect him to throw paint at any moment, just to see what it may do to a piece. He is not seeking out a product. He’s exploring the creation itself.
— Roland Obedin-Schwartz