I’ve been mulling over the strange experience of watching Tom O’Neil paint. I arrive at the studio and find him hard at work on a piece I’ve never seen before, a square canvas hanging where there used to be a painting of, as best I can describe, two melting musical notes. The new painting is a roiling dervish of green and white scratches and scraps of black layered in an angry jumble. “New piece?” I ask.
He shakes his head. “Nope. Same as last week.” I get close and make my way through its
dense layerings; lo and behold, the dripping notes are still there, jigsawed under cream-colored geometry. As we chat he continues to paint. A brush loaded with inky black scores out a winding tube — a snake, perhaps — that transforms the whole image. He steps back to take in the whole, then scuffs at the snake with a dirty rag. In another few strokes the snake is a twig, which he rips away, the remains forming what I describe as a pudding. I’m afraid to blink and miss the next move. Using an oily paint pen he draws stamen and petals and makes a flower, then pulls the petals and finds a crown. “Do I finish the crown, which it seems to want, or do I keep it as is?” He doesn’t wait for me to respond but proceeds with the crown, then sighs; it doesn’t work. He smears it out, gives it legs and a base, and before it can sit — it’s a cup, I think — he’s demolished the sides and reduced the form to a pair of ovals, parallel shapes floating in a stew of scoured black ink and the palimpsests of countless other shapes before it.
I come back a week later, and the painting is gone. In its place is a another work, a multi-colored rectangle on a gray sea made of millions of colors, but when I look closely, stepping through the layers, there lies the ghost-remainder of two melting musical notes. I cannot even imagine what it will be next.