Dubbed "the blue-eyed devil" by feminist artist Kiki Smith, Piper O'Neill is a Seattle artist whose delicate work makes manifest female growing pains. In her new show, "A Game of Graces," O'Neill uses a 19th-century parlor game as a metaphor for greater societal goals--namely the transforming of little girls into upstanding women. O'Neill paints Victorian era children in lacy frocks, whose frank gaze, often directed at the viewer, suggests resentment at the role they've been prescribed. In O'Neill's paintings, the games girls play result in despondency, not delight, begging the question: Is it fair to call it play if it's never fun?
The game of graces was originally invented as a Victorian pastime intended to help young girls develop the manners befitting a woman of polite society. Played with hoops and a pair of dowels, one player tossed a ring to their partner, who would attempt to catch it with a minimum of herky-jerky movement. The goal was not to throw hard or fast or far, but to receive the object with a maximum of grace. These demands, or lack of demands, may not have made much of an impression on contemporary players, but for O'Neill they struck a nerve. "They only seem to be going along with the game," says O'Neill of her little women. "But in fact, they're aware of a much larger farce."
O'Neill grew up the daughter of a home economics teacher in Ouray, Colorado, a mountainous former mining town filled with the kinds of Victorian residences that would have housed the girls she depicts. She sewed, along with her mother, all her own clothes, and in a nod to her seamstress roots, O'Neill uses tracing paper as the foundation for her large-scale, ink and pastel collaged drawings. Cutting out detailed objects, such as twinkling stars, skittering insects, and pieces of feminine attire, O'Neill assembles her work piecemeal, adding embroidery to accentuate the signature symbols that O'Neill has made her calling card, such as blood red roots thatÂ drift lazily down from various handheld bouquets.
A Thin Veil is based on a photograph found by O'Neill in her hometown. It depicts two well-to-do girls sitting prettily astride a miner's donkey. Everything in the painting is a study of contrasts: the idle pastime of posing for a photographer with the beast of burden's labor, the attempts at the girls to be proper with the donkey's animal instincts to feast on flowers. O'Neill has covered the animal not with sooty fur, but rather with--as the title suggests--a fine veil of lace, suggesting that attempts to tame what comes naturally may be in vain. As if to underscore this point, O'Neill has depicted her subjects looking ever so prim, while sitting literally ass backwards.
O'Neill bears a striking resemblance to her subjects, with white blonde hair and piercing, pale blue eyes. In the title work from the show, two little girls wearing black frocks hold the hoops and dowels that will "playfully" teach them a lesson. While one stares out at the viewer the other stands with eyes shut tight, lost in an interior world in which the rules of the game hold little to no sway. It's the world between exterior forces and interior longings that O'Neill calls to life, and possibly the reason that Smith has knighted her with such a devilish moniker: by shining a light on the space between who we are and what we're supposed to be, O'Neill makes even the ugly pretty easy on the eyes.
"Piper O'Neill: A Game of Graces" was on view at Winston Wachter Gallery, in Seattle, from November 9, 2011 - January 6, 2012. www.winstonwachter.com