Brand Name Painter

Ilona Szwarc for TIME

Brendan O'Connell finds art buyers in the aisles of a supermarket

A wood-burning stove heats Brendan O’Connell’s barn. Here in picturesque western Connecticut, he grows much of his food and has a near vegan diet. The barn, however, is full of Oreo cookies, Utz chips, Jif peanut butter, Uncle Ben’s rice and other household items–or rather, paintings of them.

“These brands represent where we are as a culture,” says O’Connell, a 45-year-old painter. “I find it visually exciting to go to a grocery store.”

This is not his first trip down those aisles. A working artist since the 1990s, he gained notice last February when his paintings of Walmart stores earned him a New Yorker profile. His single-brand paintings grew out of that work. On Jan. 18, prompted by requests to make his art easier to buy, he’ll launch a 24/7 online gallery mostly to sell his brand paintings and partly to benefit Everyartist Live!, a nonprofit he’s involved with.

It’s been more than 50 years since Andy Warhol exhibited his Campbell’s Soup Cans, but O’Connell’s shop illustrates a new trend in that department. Though he’s friendly with some of his subjects (Tyson Foods requested a painting of its Any’tizers chicken snacks, which O’Connell later saw hanging at Tyson’s headquarters next to a piece by Wayne Thiebaud), much of his work is driven not by postmodern ideas about mass consumption or by corporate pride but by consumer demand.

Take Swedish Fish. O’Connell notes with bemusement that the large work in progress hanging in the barn was commissioned by a man with no professional connection to the gummy sweets. Like much of O’Connell’s other work with brands, it’s a colorful look at the candy’s packaging. He often paints a product and then purposely makes it more abstract, resulting in what Fay Gold, an Atlanta gallerist who will show his Walmart work in April, calls “a series of gestures, which makes the viewer complete the picture.”

He leaves the meaning up to the viewer too. Right now, he says, society is “postculture,” and high and low art are “postdistinction,” so it’s all the more notable that his canvases are, in some ways, postcriticism. The people who want his work, many of whom he says are first-time art buyers, love their pet products, often for nostalgic reasons. He strives to respect that feeling by presenting them as objects of beauty without commentary.

“I’m very ironic, but I don’t approach these in an ironic way,” O’Connell says. “You know how Edward Hopper painted really cold things in a warm, beautiful way? Nostalgia makes memory warm.” (“That’s actually a significant thought,” he adds.)

Art that appreciates commerce has a long history, says Michele Bogart, author of Artists, Advertising and the Borders of Art, even if art that condemns it can seem more common. For example, in the 1920s Ford commissioned Charles Sheeler to celebrate its River Rouge plant in photographs. “There’s a new legitimacy of commercial-culture imagery that was present in the work of some artists in the past and was delegitimized in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s,” Bogart notes. “Now people are shrugging and accepting that commercialism is everywhere and you can’t escape.”

If O’Connell’s work is any indication, one consequence of decades of immersion in a branded world is that labels are inseparable from life. Memories are populated by people and places and packaging; the buyer of a Crisco piece told O’Connell that it represented the fried chicken of childhood. So even if the work recalls an earlier moment in consumerism, it’s also very contemporary. Now the commission could come from the driver or the car company; now we’ll spend $1,000 or so–the low end for one of O’Connell’s pieces–on a painting of Tabasco bottles because we love hot sauce that much.

To O’Connell, consumerism isn’t a bad word. To consume is human, something to which brands are incidental. “Buying a piece of art is a form of consumption. Looking at a piece of art is a form of consumption. Me walking into a grocery store and taking pictures is a form of consumption,” he says. “There’s that aspect of the zest of being alive. In order to be vibrant, you have to take things in.”

This appears in the January 27, 2014 issue of TIME.
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