David O’Brien is an artist based in Sante Fe who works in video, printing, installation and painting. Recently showcased in Newfound’s Other Worlds issue, O’Brien’s work takes a meditative look into the micro-world of humanity’s discarded waste and the implications our enduring monuments of trash leave behind.
Each painting is a hand-printed photograph, screen printed with multiple layers of resin, ink and other materials, and then stretched around a round frame. These geographical studies take on an informative and thoughtful look into what marks we make as a species. In a recent discussion with Newfound, David shares his thoughts on his work, his artistic process and what influences him. You can see more of O’Brien’s work on his website.
Courtney Simchak: How did your Disc paintings get started? What was your inspiration for the series?
David O’Brien: The disc paintings began when I started getting serious about photographing the ground. They are a way to map and document the landscape from my own perspective. Each title is a set of GPS coordinates, accurate within a few feet of the photo.
If you look down at the ground in any given place, away from pavement, you’ll most likely find some mixture of grass, plants, earth and trash. No matter how far out in the woods you go you can still probably sift the dirt and find some bits of paper, or a little shred of plastic nearby. I’ve always been interested in watching buildings and machines decay and thinking about the lifespan of materials. Organic things regenerate so quickly and synthetic things often age incredibly slowly. So these little bits of trash are fascinating to me, just as much as the ruins of some great building. They are cultural and technological artifacts, markers that we’ve been here, destroyers at the chemical level.
Simchak: I feel like that is the danger in our capabilities as humans—the willingness to acknowledge the beauty of something, while also being able to recognize the power of its influence and, in this case, destruction: your work is beautiful, even with the message of sadness, astonishment. It has both the insight of poetry and the remoteness of observational notes. Would you consider these disc paintings as a series of rumination? Do you feel your work is as much scientific documentation as much as it is art?
O’Brien: Oh I don’t think that’s a danger at all. Being able to see both sides (or for that matter, many sides) of any human endeavor, in this case material waste and excess, is a positive thing. You have to strain to see all sides of an issue and spend time reflecting on them. Only then can you really act with intention.
You could call it a rumination or documentation, but I definitely would not call it science. It’s certainly guided by scientific though but the work itself isn’t a science project, it’s an art project. It asks different kinds of questions.
Simchak: You implement screen printing– a rather elaborate layering system of different mediums and inks– to print your photographs. How did this decision come about?
O’Brien: The process of getting photographs printed, mounted and framed was never fulfilling for me personally. It’s just too detached for me, too robotic, no offense to robots or print labs or photographers. I love photography but I wanted to find a way around it. I had gotten too deep into computers, I needed something hands-on, something where I could manipulate pigment directly, away from the filter of the computer, and yet still retain a connection to what’s essential about photography. Screen printing just fit. Of course I am still trying to find a way to make it my own, to take the medium in a different direction somehow. It’s a process.
Simchak: What do you find most satisfying and most frustrating about the screen printing process?
O’Brien: What is both frustrating and satisfying are the mistakes that can still happen, no matter how scientific the process. Serendipity is a big element in screen printing. There is always a moment of surprise when you lift a screen up. You never get two pieces exactly the same.
I’m also drawn to the fact that there is real physicality to the process. In the end you’re laying down acrylic paint on a wood panel. It takes some strength and focus to make each layer of a painting and I like that about it. The screens are big heavy objects that get thrown around, and the kind of pressure you apply when printing makes a real difference.
Simchak: I feel like your gravitation to the circular shape, versus the standard rectangular/square format amplifies that pull away from the daily digital influence of how we see images. The circle seems so anti-digital. So that kind of “worldly” shape combined with the tactile nature of ink and resin, really brings out the elemental aspects of your work. Your work in installation also seems to bring your work and experiences into a physical reality. Do you think this real-world element is why so many artists work in installation form, nowadays? Do you think you might work more with installations in the future?
O’Brien: Thank you. Yes and yes definitely.
Simchak: Time is very important to your work: the time the natural space takes to decompose (or not), the time it takes to photograph and the time it takes to impose the image onto the canvas during the printing process. Can you talk more about how this informs your work?
O’Brien: For me, nothing has ever come easy. I always feel like I have to work ten times harder and it’s still not enough. Probably for this reason I tend to appreciate work that is thoughtfully crafted, patient, and slow to unfold. I envy artists who can make things quickly and it works, I’ve just never been like that.
Time is invisible and unstoppable and it etches an impression on everything. For whatever reason I’m drawn to the impression time makes on materials, regardless of their origin, natural or otherwise. So I make paintings about everyday ruins. I study that process of decay and rebirth and attempt to gain some insight from it. Many of the places I’ve found are illegal dumping sites out in the desert, or houses left to cave in on themselves. Many are utterly unremarkable patches of land no one gives a thought to.
It’s possible that one day a landfill will be as valuable as a gold mine, if we ever learn how to harvest the embodied energy in all the things we’ve throw away. I feel there is some great opportunity there yet undiscovered. That’s what makes it poetic for me, matter is always changing in time and its value is always changing. Something new is always coming.
David O’Brien currently lives and works in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He has had solo exhibitions in Los Angeles, Berlin, and Santa Fe, as well as numerous group shows. His current practice makes use of video, photography, painting, and printmaking. David travels extensively and primarily documents found natural phenomena in unexpected ways. His work questions traditional views of waste, nature, human intervention in the landscape, and the passage of time.
Courtney Simchak was born in Albuquerque, NM and raised in Central Texas. She received a Bachelor of Arts in English from Texas State University in 2016. She has been the Visual Arts Editor for Newfound since 2014 and has an artistic background in drawing, printmaking and photography. Her work has shown in Austin and San Marcos.