February 26, 2024


We Bring Good Things to Life

It’s a surreal world after all in new work by San Antonio artist Kelly O’Connor at McNay Art Museum

The longer you look at Kelly O’Connor’s “Multifaceted Woman,” the more bits and bobs of pop culture you see.

Oompa-Loompas, the rhyming work force of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, clamber about. The creepy twins from “The Shining” stand hand-in-hand in their frilly blue party dresses, their heads replaced by a pink box of feminine napkins and Crushed Carnation soap, their feet shod in strappy red shoes much racier than the black flats they sport in the film.

Carol Ann, the little girl from the movie “Poltergeist,” is in the mix, too, seen from behind, sitting cross-legged with her tiny hands stretching toward a black void. “Alice in Wonderland” images abound.

All of these characters are arranged in and around images from the It’s a Small World rides at Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, a reflection of one of O’Connor’s longstanding fascinations.

“It’s a continuation of this thing I’ve always been interested in, which is exploring behind the façade of Disney,” she said. “Disney is such an important influence on people not only in the U.S. but throughout the world. It’s this mega-industry. And I think it’s something that a lot of us as children accept without question. There’s a lot of homogenization of the cultures in there.”

The McNay Art Museum commissioned the piece from O’Connor for its AT&T Lobby, where it will be displayed through Jan. 17. She is just the second San Antonio-based artist that the museum has commissioned for the lobby wall, said René Paul Barilleaux, head of curatorial affairs.

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Barilleaux said he is taken with the inventiveness and playful spirit of the piece.

“I like it because it has kind of a pop sensibility, and there are surrealist moments,” he said. “Someone walked in here the other day, a more elderly person, looked at it and said, ‘It’s a Small World!’ Got it right away. I don’t have that reference — I’ve never been to Disney World — but it appeals to me on all these other levels.

“And it’s the kind of piece where your eye can’t stop moving — there’s no place to rest.”

O’Connor hatched the idea for the work while on a 17-hour flight from San Francisco to Singapore in January. She decided she wanted to explore It’s a Small World, which Disney created for the 1964 New York World’s Fair. She also wanted to dig into the life and aesthetic of Mary Blair, the Disney artist credited for the ride’s color palette and the collage-like design.

“The whole impetus for that ride was to, (Walt Disney) said, create peace through understanding of multiple cultures,” O’Connor said. “And so that was his goal — to introduce the U.S. to cultures from all around the world. So he enlisted Mary Blair to design the façade. She had been working with him for quite some time. She had worked on ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and several films, and he just adored her. She was a real powerhouse at Disney.”

Some elements in O’Connor’s collage are a nod to Blair’s time working on Madison Avenue.

“She was the darling of the New York ad industry, in around the ‘Mad Men’ sort of days,” O’Connor said. “I started to research her life more, and there were all these kind of stark contrasts — she worked at the happiest place on Earth, but she had this darker life. Behind her façade, I started to see this interesting contrast. Her father was an alcoholic, she didn’t have a very supportive husband, and she ended up dying of an alcohol-induced brain hemorrhage.

“So as I started to work with this façade and to construct it, I was almost starting to get into her psyche.”

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The piece includes images taken from vintage ads for beauty and cleaning products, including Joy and Thrill dish soaps, as well as clothing featured in contemporary fashion magazines. O’Connor has anthropomorphized some of them, adding legs or eyes to the bottles.

“Everything is supposed to have this empty feel,” she said. “There’s nothing really nurturing or organic. It’s all very devoid of life. And I think of it almost as this post-apocalyptic society of these different female roles living within this environment, almost like a catacomb-type situation.”

The piece exists in two forms. The wallpaper-type version at the McNay is a high-resolution reproduction, photographed by Ansen Seale, of a smaller collage.

“The collage is one work of art. This is a work of art,” Barilleaux said. “It’s not like this is a photograph of a work of art — this is a work of art. It is conceived this way. That’s been a little tough for people who think more traditionally. It’s two works of art that co-exist.”

At least, they will co-exist for a while. The collage will be exhibited at David Shelton Gallery in September as part of a solo show of O’Connor’s work. And the installation at the McNay will exist until it is stripped from the wall in January.

“It will be destroyed in the process of removing it,” Barilleaux said. “We commission a work for this spot, for a certain length of time, knowing that the removal of it will destroy it. And everybody signs off on that.

“This work of art is like theater – it has a duration. The collage exists forever, whatever that means, but this exists only until January.”

Deborah Martin is an arts writer in the San Antonio and Bexar County area. To read more from Deborah, become a subscriber. [email protected] | Twitter: @DeborahMartinEN