The Modern’s new show is so unpretentious that it starts with a drawing Robyn O’Neil did as a kindergartener. The artist was living in Houston as a child and it was a response to Hurricane Alicia, which tore the roof off her house in 1983.
“It was terrifying, but also really exciting,” O’Neil said. “It started me off on a journey of being obsessed with weather.” She later became a volunteer weather watcher for a news station in high school and college.
As embryonic as her kindergarten drawing is, it provides a glimpse of what was to come. It is somber, it focuses on weather, and its characters are lost.
On view through February 9 at The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Robyn O’Neil: We, The Masses is a twenty-year survey of mostly pencil drawings on paper. But many of these works are large and intricate enough to recall Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights.” O’Neil’s fascination with the Heaven’s Gate cult makes her works just as wicked as the hellscapes of the Dutch painter. But she also conveys a playful sense of humor and the influence of animation from television shows like King of the Hill and Beavis and Butt-head.
Like the members of the religious cult who committed mass suicide, all of the characters in O’Neil’s drawings wear sweat suits and sneakers. But this attire also represents her affinity for wearing sweatpants, watching football, and eating snacks on weekends. Some of the earliest works here are goofy drawings of these characters.
“I wanted to unify them all and have them look like they were part of some gang or club or cult,” O’Neil said. “It doesn’t dehumanize them, but it leaves them no room to be individuals.”
And these characters are all men.
“If I were to include females, people tend to procreate,” O’Neil said. “I didn’t want to allow that because I didn’t want to give these guys a chance to survive. If they treat themselves, animals, and the land horribly, then their world is going to crumble.”
All of these characters are destined to lose struggles with nature and O’Neil quickly adds surreal backdrops and plenty of atmosphere. She also multiplies these men by the hundreds or thousands. Lumped together, they start doing horrible things.
Taking months and sometimes years to complete, O’Neil’s large scale landscape drawings have a stunning level of detail. “HELL,” for example, is a triptych that includes thousands of tiny human corpses, piled and scattered, along with some oversized severed heads. Trees as large as skyscrapers make the work even more otherworldly.
O’Neil enjoys the lengthy, difficult process of creating these works, even when it leads to maniacal creations with imagery that is increasingly dense and minute. From 2007, “These final hours embrace at last; this is our ending, this is our past” is one of the best examples of her obsessive practice. The piece includes just one of O’Neil’s tiny characters holding onto a zipline in the sky, but the violent waves of an ocean below take up most of the frame and are rendered with great technical skill. (An animated film accompanying the exhibit shows the man eventually losing his grip and falling to his watery death.)
O’Neil is critical of humanity and it is a constant theme in her work. Her characters are always minor details in these landscapes. They are also secondary to animals in works like 2004’s “As Ye the sinister creep and feign those once held become those now slain.” A bison larger than a mountain is the centerpiece of the three panels.
“I wanted to zoom way out and look at us humans as minorly important,” O’Neil said. “We are not the center of our world and we do a lot of horrible things. I love seeing nature as a big, broad, beautiful, romantic thing. I like seeing humans as pretty ridiculous and kind of dumb.”
Realizing she wanted to kill her characters, O’Neil inserted these men into harsh winters or left them floating on rafts in the ocean. Inspired by Hurricane Katrina, one of her landscapes is flooded.
“I’ve lost a lot of work and peace from drastic weather in my life,” O’Neil said. “I wonder if I conjure it up. Horrible things seem to follow me when it comes to mother nature, but I respect it.”
Indeed, O’Neil even seems content to suffer the fate of one of her characters. She says being killed by a lion or a tsunami are two ways that she would not mind “going out.”