Robyn O’Neil is a Los Angeles-based artist whose work was included in the 2004 Whitney Biennial. She is the recipient of numerous grants and awards, including a Joan Mitchell Foundation Grant. Her work is represented by Susan Inglett Gallery in New York City, Talley Dunn Gallery in Dallas and Western Exhibitions in Chicago. Her prints are available through Graphicstudio, Electric Works and Susan Inglett Gallery. Her website is robynoneil.com
Interviewed by Diana Zhou
Edited by Linda Lin
When and why did you decide to pursue a career as an artist?
My grandmother taught all of her grandkids to paint with oils. I started when I was only five years old, and I immediately loved everything about artmaking. I knew right then I was meant to be an artist, and for better or worse I have never had a moment of doubt. I was really ambitious in high school, and started to show in galleries around Dallas and Fort Worth. The "why" is part mystery and part very simple. Nothing makes me feel as satisfied as making images. I love being alone for hours and hours creating something that never existed before. It's a true pleasure for me, even when it's frustrating. And it's often frustrating.
How would you describe your art, both throughout your career and your current work, and the inspiration behind it?
Overall I would describe my work as 2D landscape. Sometimes they are populated with humans and animals, sometimes they are vast and empty. For many years, these landscapes were apocalyptic, and now they are not. The inspiration for this work is my desire to continue to figure out what it means to be a human being on this big rock we call “Earth.”
What drew you to using video as a medium for your artwork?
I was lucky enough to attend my favorite filmmaker Werner Herzog's Rogue Film School, and there I met Irish director Eoghan Kidney. He was drawn to my graphite drawings of men in sweatsuits, and he wanted to animate them. At first I said I was not interested because somehow it never occurred to me to pursue animation. But the longer Eoghan talked about how he envisioned my drawings coming to life, the more I was convinced that it was a tremendous opportunity. And it also helped me further conclude the narrative of the sweatsuit men. I put that to rest through the film we made, which is titled "WE THE MASSES."
How do you think the art world has changed from the beginning of your career until now?
It has changed quite a bit. When I was coming out of school, there was not such an emphasis put on career. Shortly after when making quality work was valued above all (as the 90's ended), the art world seemed to crave big art stars like Matthew Barney, Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst, etc. When this kind of marketability and star power (bigger, richer, more powerful) took over, mixed with the internet age, it is just a whole new messy thing that I never could have anticipated. The main problem I keep noticing is that no one seems to be able to slow down. We all want more and more exhibitions on our resumes, more and more sales. I guess I just wish there could be some sort of movement that takes us back a few steps again. I think it is difficult to make thoughtful and innovative work when we are in such a hurry to be noticed and wanted constantly.
Do you think your gender has had an impact on your career and if so, how?
I think I was so tunnel visioned towards obsessively making my drawings when my career started, that I was embarrassingly unaware of any gender disparities impacting me to begin with, but of course it was always there. As I age, I see more and more how unfairly women in the arts are treated.
Though women earn half of the MFAs granted in the US, only a quarter of solo exhibitions in New York galleries feature women. (Brainstormers Research, 2006 and Saltz, Village Voice, 9.21.06) Why do you think this is? How can we change this?
I like seeing in mentioned as much as possible because I think a fair amount of well-meaning people just don't realize we are still facing a problem this enormous. As for the "why", for one it is simply because the same opportunities are not given to women as they are to men. Galleries are our conduit to museums and lasting success, and if galleries are not actively pursuing works of merit instead of defaulting to giving most of their shows to men, women are going to continue to struggle to make the impact they deserve to make. Something desperately needs to be done to regulate this because nobody looks out for us artists, including ourselves. We are lone wolves, which is wonderful in so many ways, but when it comes to the fight for equality, operating alone just doesn't work.
Do you have any tips or inspiring words for young female artists?
Tell people you deserve to be here. Never say "I feel I deserve this exhibition, residency, grant, etc.", say "I KNOW I deserve this exhibition, residency, grant, etc." Be loud and convincing. See no obstacles. Create your place in this art world because places are not handed out. Also, resilience is perhaps the most important of all, besides of course making thoughtful work.