The art of John O’Neill always strikes me as being more realistic than real life. He typically takes an everyday situation and spins it a little, so people’s feelings and desires leap out at the viewer more than they would on actually seeing them. That’s not to say he’s a caricaturist – far from it – but he perceives that the folk at the bar might be smiling, but they are actually snarling inside, and so paints them that way.
His Biennial selection on the first floor of the Gostins building fills the cafe with lurid colour, in stark contrast to the tables, chairs, and the walls they hang on. In an important sense, O’Neill world isn’t the Gostins world of trendy boutiques and meditation centres. No, it is the heaving city centre streets just around the corner, it is frantic and nightmarish nightlife, it is wherever rotten drunk people become CCTV stars, like Friday Night Fool (above left). In short, it is the Liverpool that hasn’t been and won’t be packaged for the Capital of Culture dollar.
O’Neill can do calm and tranquil, such as in two of his Sefton Park Palm House pictures. However, it is noticeable that there are no people in these images. This is in stark contrast to visions like the Great White Lie, a horrific collision of holiday and concentration camps, where daytrippers swarm under the ever watchful eye of some Dr Mengele/Oswiecim tourist board figure. Commercialisation and extermination are two sides of the same coin, it seems to suggest. Since the holocaust is so often written off as being an atrocity beyond human understanding, this would be a bold claim to make.
Down the corridor, some unsold paintings by Richard Young (1921-2003) are displayed. These skilled, impressionistic renderings of people, their postures and expressions are well worth viewing, but it is O’Neill who sees further.