Like astronauts who explore to the ends of the galaxy, an artist’s journey is filled with a similar degree of isolation, uncertainty, and mystery. Art and space science are channels through which David O’Malley relates to his London environ of eight million strangers. His canvases convey infinite possibilities breaking through the void of quotidian drudgery.
Installation Magazine: By turning the canvas around and using the unfinished backing as the frame in the series Painting is Infinite, you present the canvas as a portal that looks out. You cite David Lynch’s comment about the limitations of film and the freedom of painting as the catalyst of the series. What freedoms do you think are inherent in painting that are not present in other mediums?
David O’Malley: Yes, I’d read an interview a few years ago about how Lynch was giving up film in favor of making paintings. After reading it, I scrawled “painting is infinite” at the foot of an old sketch painting, stuck it to my wall, and there it remained for a couple of years before I began creating the series of paintings named in accordance with the note.
Before an artist begins a painting, they are confronted with emptiness in the form of the blank canvas. The experience can be terrifying or liberating but it also elicits boundless freedom as an infinite configuration of marks can be made. There are no limits in painting- it’s possible to depict anything your mind can come up with.
In some ways the paintings also refer to my personal experience of the Rothko room at the Tate Modern in London. The optical interplay that creates a vast sense of depth in those canvases combined with the low lighting in the room enables me to feel as though I’m on a precipice, looking out into sheer, sublime infinity. The drop occurs at the point when the eyes lose focus and we find ourselves transfixed in some kind of eternal yard stare. Finding the infinite also has something to do with tuning into a static, frozen, still point in time and space. I feel I can meditatively lock onto a string of infinity through a painting. I’m aware that all things are ephemeral; the void eventually consumes everything. In the immeasurable context of time and the universe, things flicker in and out of existence as though they may as well have never existed at all. Sometimes I can look out into a wall and make it dissolve into nothingness, people too. I did this the other night on an underground train platform after returning to London. Ten minutes later during transit I overheard a girl talking rather loudly about someone she knew who thinks “life isn’t real.” This place is strange.
Your work plays with scale, studying astronauts from close and distant vantage points. Like the miniature figurines placed in the frame of the canvas of Painting is Infinite, we can’t help but feel small in the grand scheme of the universe. As an artist, how do you reconcile your place in the world?
There’s something solipsistic about the lone astronauts. I think the lone astronaut motif represents the mind of the individual and by contrast, space stands for everything outside that. To me, this scenario addresses a core element of the human condition: the fact that we are all essentially locked inside the walls of our skulls. The paintings are also a response and reflection on what it feels like to live in London, a city of over eight million strangers. I accept it’s an unfriendly, suspicious place. I’m part of that. I’m also influenced by what it is like to live outside of the conventional, secure framework. Nearly all of my old friends seem to live as “9-5-ers.” I envy their security slightly as there’s no stability for me at this point in my career. However, I did actually work in drudgerous offices (as an in-house graphic designer to pay off my debts) for several years, enduring the nightmarish overcrowded public transport system within the vast, filthy, relentless, work-hive that is London. I’m afraid it all made me rather ill. I still live in London, but almost sideways, if you like, almost in a kind of alternative dimension, doing my own thing.
What role does science and/or scientific theory play in your practice?
Ever since I can remember I’ve been fascinated by space. When I was a child I would voraciously consume space science books and Science Fiction books. When I was about eight or nine, every night I’d hide under my sheets contemplating where the limit of everything was: the solar system, the galaxy, the universe- what’s outside that? And what’s outside of that? I’d try to comprehend infinity. My folks let me watch Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey on my own when I was about nine, that film has had quite an impact on me, especially the latter stages where it becomes abstract. There is a space science influence in my work but with a romanticized twist. I like to dip into science blogs, science articles, and astronomy magazines. I’ve read my share of Stephen Hawking- I remember first reading his books about five or six years ago while taking long haul flights between London and Singapore. Being up in the clouds made his theories even more mind-blowing. I always look out for science programs on TV covering dark matter, multiverse theory and string theory.
In the series Astronauts Close there are a few pieces indicated as “in progress.” What direction do you hope to take?
Astronauts Close involves a kind of reversal. Instead of space being the dominant power, we now have the human figure. These pieces are quite large-scale. One in particular looms especially large, bearing down on the viewer. There’s an intimidating sense of claustrophobia as opposed to the Zen element with the distant astronauts. Also, there is a more unnerving edge to Astronauts Close. Someone told me they feel ghoulish, their faces are void and it’s not certain what’s in there. I am always contemplating the void. After all, we all come from what we perceive is the void and inevitably return to it.
What about astronauts interests you? Do you feel like their voyages into the unknown reflect the artistic practice?
Yes, while floating above the Earth encased in a space suit one must enjoy a dignified sense of detachment, drifting in splendid isolation. But there also must be mortal fear. In addition, there’s something of the faded dream resonating in there through the astronaut motif; the Space Program retreated, space exploration lost a lot of it’s mass appeal. My astronauts are always portrayed in a state of isolation. Due to the nature of their work, life for most artists can be predominantly solitary. I don’t mind that. I accept it. I normally don’t see another soul during the daytime. Most other artists including writers share similar circumstances, they have made a pact with isolation. Nowadays a lot of individuals live mainly on the Internet, a reference to this modern phenomenon is also involved in my work. The artist’s job is, after all, to be a witness to his time in history. Ultimately, I think the artistic practice reflects the human race’s inbuilt drive to keep pushing and exploring. Outer space represents the ultimate unchartered territory.
What’s next? What are you currently working on? Any scheduled exhibits in the works?
I’ve got a few paintings ready for exhibiting at several open exhibitions this summer, mainly in England and France, in addition I’m also considering an invitation to put on a solo show in Sweden. A few days ago I completed a self-portrait wearing a modern cosmonaut suit that I’d like to exclusively reveal to Installation Magazine. It’s entitled Don’t Let Life Pass You By.
All images © of the artist