It's rare that an artist skyrockets to fame as rapidly as Brendan O'Connell, a Georgia-born painter who gained international attention in early 2013 after being profiled in the New Yorker and featured on such TV shows as "The Colbert Report." The reason for the media furor lies largely in his chosen subject matter: the quintessentially American value-shopping behemoth known as Walmart.
In his often large-scale, impressionistic canvases, O'Connell depicts slices of everyday life as lived in the superchain's outlets across the country, capturing shoppers choosing between clusters of bananas or wandering through towering stacks of Wonderbread. In this interview, we spoke to the artist about how he got started on his famed "Walmart" series, and where art and consumerism meet.
It’s easy—and almost tempting—to read irony into your vividly colored paintings, but the series’s documentary style lends it appreciable sincerity. What do you find to be so captivating about shopping in Walmart?
Every day millions of people walk through this highly curated space in a very unironic way. They are simply getting the stuff of everyday life. My practice has been to attempt to find beauty in the ordinary moment of this ubiquitous environment.
Your "Walmart" series is notably different from your other paintings, which range from abstractions to photographic portraits that focus more on the people depicted than their surroundings. What made you start painting scenes from Walmart?
I used to be a public abstract painter who exhibited abstract work but was a closeted figurative painter. Now I’m kind of the opposite. I still do abstract work but it’s much less public.
Is there are a reason why you chose Walmart specifically for this series? Why Walmart and not Costco or Trader Joe’s?
First is size. Walmart is the most-visited interior space on the planet. As far as retail environments, the visitors of Target, Costco, BJs combined don’t reach their numbers. Second is the everyday people who frequent the environment. A very large percentage of the shoppers who walk into Walmart have never been to a museum or contemporary art gallery. That is interesting in itself. The product display is a kind of visual experience—even if unconscious—for the consumer.
Your "Walmart" series brought you to the attention of "The Colbert Report." It’s not every day an artist appears on a talk show. How does it feel to have your work embraced by mass media?
As the series progressed, there were significant art-world people who encouraged me to embrace the high-low aspects of this, saying that a serious New York collector might buy something that people in Kansas could relate to. I like that a lot. It is not different from when I did caricatures in the streets of Paris. There were no barriers to entry in terms of spectator consumption.
The paintings of Pierre Bonnard and Camille Pissarro seem to have been major influences on your work. What other artists have inspired your own work?
Warhol, Hopper, Wayne Thiebaud, Henry Darger, Bob Ross, Diebenkorn, and Peter Max.
You worked as a street portraitist in Europe for seven years. Did that experience have any effect on your work?
It gave me a perspective that a lot of Pac Rim artists have, that I didn’t need to get bent out of shape by distinctions between commercial work and “high art.” In some ways engaging in “commercial” pursuits liberates you from certain pretensions which might otherwise be an obstacle to communicating.
What specifically interests you about consumerism?
Consumerism is what defines this moment in time. It’s not just an artistic “choice” to pursue it, but rather addressing what is core to human existence at this time. It is an irrevocable part of everyday life. And even if you are not “buying stuff” it’s hard to go through a day without consuming visual imagery.
The money you make from selling the Walmart series is being used to fund Everyartist.me, a foundation that you created to encourage millions of children across the United States to make art—and which promises to be the “largest art event in history.” How did you become involved with this project?
I partnered with the Bentonville Arkansas school district and 8,500 kids to do a pilot test for a national art event. It was hugely successful. I teamed up with a few like-minded friends, art collectors, entrepreneurs, and brand gurus, who believe wholeheartedly that sparking human creativity is the most important thing we can do as parents and educators. Historically the evolution of the species has been tied to our creative resolutions to the challenges that face each age.
Speaking of the importance of teaching art, what inspired you to become an artist?
I went to Paris when I was 22 to write a novel, which was about a group of painters. I picked up a pencil and did my first drawing since I was eight and had a profound personal experience. And it made me want to explore this. Making marks on a page gave me something that until then I had never experienced.
What do you see as the artist’s role in society?
I don’t know. I like the metaphor of an emotional navigator. I think about the gap between reality and fantasy, the mirror of what we are and the mirror of what we might be.
If you could have any artist do your portrait, who would it be?
That’s funny. Check out my "Apostles" series. I did the portraits of a bunch of painters and they all felt like they were portraits of me.