Robyn O’Neil: We, The Masses
October 18, 2019–February 9, 2020
Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Fort Worth
Robyn O’Neil, who’s only in her early forties but is already receiving the retrospective treatment, pulls off so much with very little. Her large-scale graphite pencil-on-paper drawings, which sometimes measure over seven feet in height and more than thirteen feet in length, are executed with a .5-millimeter mechanical pencil and a blending stump that she received from her mother in the seventh grade. That’s it for the Los Angeles–based visual artist and mastermind behind the Me Reading Stuff podcast.
This leaves room for her vast imagination that often explores a bizarro fictionalized world of existential despair, as well as a looming apocalypse that’s about to wipe away hundreds of men in activewear. We, The Masses, a remarkable twenty-year survey at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, also acts as a celebration of Texas art. The Omaha, Nebraska–born O’Neil has lived a good chunk of her existence in Dallas and Houston.
The bulk of O’Neil’s career overview centers on her series that comments on the relationship of human society to the beautiful but often crushing natural world. At first, the drawings—featuring mediocre men of dreary body type, wearing all-black sweatsuits with white cross trainers—start off as figure studies, with the guys engaging in old timey calisthenics.
Unlike the heroic figures of a novel, these poor souls can’t and don’t rebel against their creator, because they’re in too deep.
As the series progresses, the men are placed in snowy mountainous grounds without provisions. Here, the men—drawn in mind-blowing detail on palimpsest-free surfaces—engage in unhinged activity, ranging from gnawing on tree bark to fighting with one another. Some men hug en masse: they seem to know that O’Neil is about to hit the go button on the apocalypse. Unlike the heroic figures of a novel, these poor souls can’t and don’t rebel against their creator, because they’re in too deep.
The exhibition is punctuated by the We, The Masses film, which was conceived at Werner Herzog’s Rogue Film School and features striking illustrative touches. The emotional thirteen-minute film, which coaxes repeated viewings, depicts the events following O’Neil’s drawing, showing the last man on Earth clinging to a slack rope that dangles above violent waters. This version of the end of human society is particularly wonderful.