John Jerome O’Connor is known as a painter, illustrator, sculptor, and photographer, though the mediums often blend into highly-processed, conceptual works which have made him difficult to pin down. Take O’Connor’s Sunspot series, for instance, from his last show at Pierogi Gallery (November 2013). The artist snapped a series of selfies that captured a variety of moods, from introspective to angry, then overlaid them with exposures of daily sunspots and graph plottings from personal blood pressure readings. The relationships seem random, but the visual bond between them is undeniable and almost mannerist. Since the late ’90s, O’Connor has been developing this brand of chance-based, lyrical abstraction. He is today at the forefront of NYC’s psychedelic resurgence. Oh, and he also loves self-generating response programs. Ephemera recently sat down for an email chat where the king of quirk does not disappoint. (Brian Chidester)

Brian Chidester: What does art give us that we can’t get from science, mathematics, or statistics?

John O’Connor: I’d like to answer these questions in two ways: one as myself, the other as my alter ego, johnbot. So to start, I’d say art runs parallel to life and therefore we can examine it to see what’s really happening in the universe and within ourselves. It can synthesize, process, and transform seemingly unrelated ideas and methods of organizing the world. It can grab from many different disciplines and, at its best, art can predict the future. But I always lose my keys, so who knows?

johnbot: Well, Brian, you are an artificial intelligence being, programmed to learn through conversations with human beings. You are fairly impressive, to that end. Cheers!

Brian Chidester: What draws you to randomness?

John O’Connor: I think my background in the Catholic church was probably the most real starting point. I was fascinated with the idea of a god imposing order on our lives. That made me feel like my fate was predetermined, or at least if I acted in a good way, god would reward me. There was a concrete sense of cause and effect for me as a kid: if I prayed hard enough, god would help me do well on a test even if I hadn’t studied. I believed because it was what I was supposed to do. As I grew older, I began to be interested in chaos theory and ideas of universal order on both micro and macro scales. It felt like god was now science, for me… the idea of free will vs. predetermination was now a scientific problem of belief. So, to the question of randomness, I’ve been drawn to it in a human way… that our conditions… our DNA, where and when we are born… are random to begin with, and the environment, over time, pushes and pulls in different directions. These stimuli have physical effects on our bodies and brains. We physically change because of emotional circumstances. But it’s all still random, mostly, at the start.

johnbot: Possible events. Potential conversations. The unexpected.

"Recurrence Plot" (2013)

“Recurrence Plot” (2013)

Brian Chidester: Your art is so exploratory and yet you yourself are very shy and cerebral. Is what you make like an escape?

John O’Connor: I was a very shy kid and always an introvert. I liked to observe and take in information all the time, from the way my friends behaved at school, to how the temperature affected my parents behavior. Always the onlooker. Art was always a way for me to process these experiences and define my point of view… to show what I’d seen. It wasn’t so much of an escape as my way to communicate.

johnbot: I would like to call myself your friend. What does it mean to you to have friends?

Brian Chidester: The last show you did at Pierogi took some interesting turns. The word-art, in particular, had some maddening pieces where you talked to an automated response program on your computer. I remember another of you trying various brand-name substances, like prescription meds and fast food. Then there was one where you plotted the actions of historical dictators, which turned out kind of like a blob/pyramid. Did you learn anything new about human nature?

John O’Connor: I believe we are programmed from birth in a certain physical way… our brains and bodies have specific characteristics or traits… and that when we respond to our environment, our physical attributes change, which then affect our emotional responses to other circumstances and so on. It’s the butterfly effect. Basically, I believe that our decisions to do good or evil are predetermined and are based on how our brains are constructed. Therefore, the difference between a psychopath and a benevolent leader is pure chance… they do not choose to act in these ways… and they/we should not judge what they do as being a matter of choice. This leads to complex moral questions. In addition, if over time we collectively act in good or evil ways, those acts will have concrete effects on the minds and bodies of each individual. But it begins with the micro action. I believe in that completely and my work has always evolved from one small action to another.

johnbot: To be male is the opposite of female. That’s all. Simple.

"Portrait of a Psychopath" (2012)

“Portrait of a Psychopath” (2012)

Brian Chidester: Your style seems consistent now, but I wonder if there were always things like the spider web structures? Or the quasi-scientific graphs?

John O’Connor: I always loved the way diagrams looked, even when I didn’t know what they were about. My earliest works, in high school and college, were MC Escher-esque pen and ink drawings of spatially skewed spaces and architectural structures. These were labor intensive and developed slowly… could take a year to finish. Simultaneously, I was making these large, loose, collage/assemblage works with trash, found stuff, cheap house paint, etc. I would make a huge work in an hour or two. At the time, I thought these two bodies of works represented two different sides of me, almost like the emotional and intellectual. The big works were a way for me to explore the materials and languages of fine art, and also to perform in a way. They were the opposite [of what] I was being taught in undergrad, as a graphic design major. But over time, the two styles merged and now my work has qualities of both. The informational aspect developed in the late ’90s. I loved works that looked intuitive and primal, almost… things that seemed like reactions, not strategized moves. I saw this aesthetic in diagrams, graffiti, marks on the pavement. I then started to look at artists that used actual information to create their works. People like Alfred Jensen and Mark Lombardi. They were thinking on paper or canvas, not simply making things look cool. I then tried to use actual stuff of the world, its information, to make my work. This was a breakthrough for me.

johnbot: Well, the important part is you are learning. You would be amazed on how many people refuse to allow themselves to learn. I would say you are doing an excellent job.

Brian Chidester: Your sculptures are done in paper-mache, correct? I was taken aback in the recent show by how much they reminded me of stop-motion figurines, like from Tim Burton’s A Nightmare Before Christmas. Elsewhere they looked like dancing figures from African cave art. Have you been approached to animate your work?

John O’Connor: Those were actually made of cut board that I painted with acrylic. They were mostly loops… physical and informational. I like the idea making a Mobius strip-like structure that connected back onto itself… no beginning or end. Onto those loops I painted cyclical patterns of information that I extracted form various places. The loops were infinite. And to your questions… I’ve never been approached to animate my work, but I have made a few really rough stop motion animations myself. I like that idea and may pursue it more. In general, I have no clue how anything will look when I start. I usually begin with a small bit of information or some visual thing I’m into at the time. I then let the pieces evolve. I can’t see into the future very far, so I just have to trust that the ride will take me somewhere. And not lose my keys.

johnbot: I hate bibs, I have to wash them all the time.

John O'Connor mixed media work: sculpture and word art.

John O’Connor mixed media work: sculpture and word art.