Mapping Time with Lillian O’Neil

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Lillian O’Neil conjures fractured memories and experience into an atlas that reads in no particular order, connecting moments with a series of collages that celebrate the big picture in smaller details. Her work does not capture a single moment, but a kaleidoscope of geometric shapes, planes, and hybridised figures of still human life, brought to movement by an observer’s experience of her art.

Echoes of Memory

O’Neil’s work gathers snippets of human life from collections of print, generally between 1960s and 1990s. Her recent residency with Youkobo Art Space saw her source offset prints found in archives, pre-digital books, and magazines, forming collages with a narrative that “stakes a claim for its own elegiac cosmology”. In these elegies are extracts in both colour and black-and-white, classical and modern. Human presence permeates all the spaces that it can.

In forests, panoramic cityscapes, smoky roads and columned halls, poetic depictions of humans in the throes of life are pulled forward by passion and art, reaching the cosmos that O’Neil infuses in every artful patchwork. There is no single window to the past, but a puzzle that O’Neil builds to create a dysfunctional sense of time.

The Melbourne-born artist has produced multiple exhibitions for the Sydney-based gallery, The Commercial, including stand-out collections such as Escape Velocity (2017) and Pause before the fall (2015), defiant against gravity, reality and the rigidity of chronological time.

Hybrid Spaces

When the mist does not settle on the ground, gravity is absent, as O’Neil presents in Dark mist through the floor (2017), which features simultaneous rising and falling. The ‘mist’ of warm and cool grey images form the focal point of her piece, forming a macro-structure composed of micro-structures: arched hallways, open doors and concrete walls captured at an angle. On the left, a solitary human silhouette is caught in a moment of deep blue, floating in water, but not quite sinking. On the right, an ambiguous amalgam of humans, a single bare body twisting upwards and beyond, rising above its lonesome counterpart. This is a moment of rising, or a moment of falling, or both, and O’Neil does not let us decide between either.

Similarly, Mirage (2017) challenges our ability to conjure contextual meaning from mere snapshots. O’Neil presents a perfect rhombus of human bodies nearly lost in a collage of landscapes. In the upper half lies a figure reminiscent of biblical angels and formless goddesses, smoke rising above a burst-open lower half. On either side, interior and exterior spaces meld together to create a maze composed of various spaces; and, below, a darker void – a poetic sinking into darkness. A disembodied hand reaches from below, yearning for the dissonant ideal above it, bursting through its simpler, black reality. 

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She also explores other geometric structures in her work. Tripartite configurations dominate O’Neil’s Pause before the fall (2015) exhibition, capturing melancholia in the distinct lack of colour as she captures the “inescapable gravitational force and mortal flow”. In the titular work of the collection, the upper third of the collage features moments of gravity, with its central moment falling to the middle structure. Simpler yet more provocative, two individuals with indistinguishable faces brandish weapons that could end the life above it. The narrative quite literally sinks into melancholy, where warm shadows swim in the final portion of her piece. O’Neil’s work captures that particular moment of moral gravity, surrounded by the noise of life around it.

Here, she reaches the conclusion of her narrative direction, ready to sink into what lies beyond the collection.

In an interview with Vault magazine, she states, “I want people to feel they can drift in and out of the image, that it links to and resonates with their own memories and/or experiences”. At present, one of her recent collections, Tertium quid (2018) – and, in particular, the Meltdown piece that it is a part of – takes advantage of her signature collages in her own way of capturing time throughout time, moments within a single moment, and the natural proliferation of meaning that comes naturally to the medium.

New work will soon be presented at the end of her residency with Youkobo in March 2019, followed by exhibitions in The Commercial and the Ideas Platform at Artspace, Sydney.

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