Behind bars: O'Neal gets elemental

Alan O'Neal, "Composition No. 3"
Alan O'Neal, "Composition No. 3"

When confronted with abstraction, many art lovers–- particularly those with a fondness for, say, Renaissance portraiture or Hudson River School landscapes–- complain, "I don't get it." Without a recognizable reference, they turn away before allowing the art to stimulate visceral reactions or arouse subconscious associations.

Geometric abstracts, such as those Alan O'Neal carefully creates, can prove even more challenging. The nine pieces in O'Neal's exhibition, "Compositions," currently on view at Angelo, are mostly sharp-edged and austere. Each acrylic painting comprises rectangular bars arranged symmetrically in multiples of three. Although the artist's precision is immediately apparent, there is little warm and welcoming about the art.

But that's not O'Neal's aim. In his artist's statement, he explains he restricts himself to basic elements in order to create contemplative spaces for viewers to interact with the work. He notes that historically, geometric images were used to "induce concentration and enhance intuitive perception."

Three works on Angelo's east wall, "Compositions Nos. 3, 7, and 8," offer variations on a theme. In each, O'Neal stacks three horizontal bars over three identically sized vertical bars. In the first paintings, the bars are black against a white background. In the second, the bars vary in color–- lavender, ochre, and cerulean blue on top; green, yellow, and orange below–- against a black background. The third also features colored bars, but in different hues against a white backdrop.

The paintings are deceptively simple, but a few minutes spent with this trio reveals the white backgrounds are more than white, subtly enriched by underlying layers of blue and other colors. Also, the bars seem to come forward or recede, depending on their color and background. Although the images are contained, they seem in constant conversation with each other.

Of all of O'Neal's images, "Composition No. 4," is perhaps the most accessible, thanks to the softness of its diffuse-edged horizontal rectangles painted in silvery grey against a speckled white background. O'Neal's complex layering comes through in the rosy edges of the parallel elements, which give subtle warmth to the overall piece.

"Composition No. 1" is less successful, with broad black and white stripes reminiscent of a prison uniform. Also difficult is "Composition No. 9," in which nine small vertical and horizontal black blocks offer the illusion of perpetual motion, inducing a headache more than concentration.

But even those two paintings are interesting experiments in O'Neal's ongoing effort to stir reaction through elemental arrangements.

Alan O'Neal's exhibit, "Compositions," is on view through the end of April at Angelo, 220 E. Main St. on the Downtown Mall. 971-9256.