I had never seen Kelly O’Connor’s work together in one place, one show, one space all at one time until I saw Last Resort at Women and their Work in Austin. O’Connor’s work works better when it’s shown together in a cohesive exhibition. While that’s true for most artists, it’s especially true with O’Connor’s work. The few times I’ve seen her works on paper or sculptures in group shows or art fairs, I always had the feeling that something was missing, like walking in at the wrong half of a conversation. Together, the works make the space a vibrant kaleidoscope of color, her ideas work together to make her voice stronger.
The work in the show does not overwhelm the space, and everything fits together beautifully. A giant dome filled with bejeweled beehives, heavy metal lawn furniture and technically precise drawings tell O’Connor’s story of historical Americana. It’s like walking into another era and seeing it through the lens of a glittering kaleidoscope. The works depict scenes of fun and indeed the figures are smiling and happy, but O’Connor’s brightly colored collaged additions make the fun seem overstimulated. In Color Me, a lonely figure sits at the edge of a circular crater crammed with tiny colorful paper hexagons, hinting at a desolate solitude. Twirl is the same: a scene full of carnival-type rides is masked by clouds of the distracting colored hexagons. In Watergate, an ominous circular structure emerges from a barren lake, brought to life by a psychedelic paper pinwheel in its center.
It’s a creepy show, like walking into a post-apocalyptic Disneyland. You have the sense that people were once there enjoying the space, and the rides, but underneath it all there’s an immanent silence that lingers. The lawn furniture sits empty and unused. The dome stands empty except for a few strategically placed beehives, forgotten by time. I never experienced the typical suburban “American” lifestyle for which, according to the exhibition text, the show is nostalgic. For me, the show awakens memories of things unattainable in my own adolescence, rather than reminiscence of a lost ideal.
Issues of meaning aside, the strength of the show lies in the immaculate detail that draws the viewer in physically to get a closer look. The works on paper are beautiful in their technicality, juxtaposing vintage magazine photographs and intricate paper collage. There’s an overwhelming presence of the artist’s hand; a million little shapes fit together perfectly, each individually cut and carefully placed over scenes of mountains, theme park rides full of people, or standing alone in nature. Surprising and touching, Last Resort draws its audience in close both physically and emotionally.