Magical Mystery Tour Exploring the life and art of the
late Sean O’Donnell
By Robrt L. Pela, published: May 11, 2006, Phoenix New Times.
Sean O’Donnell waves at visitors from the window of his paint-peeling brick home; his fingertips splayed in greeting, his face mashed against the glass. “The first time I saw that, I forgot he was dead,” says artist Janet de Berge Lange, pointing to the color photocopy of O’Donnell that he taped into his front window late last year, not long before he drove to a nearby shopping mall and stuck a gun in his mouth. “So I waved back.” Lange is standing beneath the photocopy, trying to remember which key unlocks the door to O’Donnell’s central Phoenix home. “Okay, Seany,” she mumbles to herself, even though her best friend has been dead for nearly half a year. “Which key is it?” Lange has been hanging out at O’Donnell’s cluttered, filthy house for several months now, cleaning and organizing, but mostly exhuming his work for a Sean O’Donnell retrospective Lange is standing beneath the photocopy, trying to remember which key unlocks the door to O’Donnell’s central Phoenix home. “Okay, Seany,” she mumbles to herself, even though her best friend has been dead for nearly half a year. “Which key is it?”
Lange has been hanging out at O’Donnell’s cluttered, filthy house for several months now, cleaning and organizing, but mostly exhuming his work for a Sean O’Donnell retrospective she’s planning to unveil later this month.
“There’s stuff everywhere,” Lange says. “Sean was never very tidy, but the last few months he really made a mess.” From beneath the rubble of O’Donnell’s troubled life, Lange has unearthed some real beauty. “Here’s one from his first big show,” she says, pointing to one of the neatly framed, light-up photo montages O’Donnell was best known for. “And here’s a box full of Angry Women and Jesus Heads that I’ve been finding all over the house.”
Angry Women. Jesus Heads. Monkeys. Buddha. Ronald McDonald. The Virgin Mary. Ev Mecham. O’Donnell obsessively collected photographic images of these and dozens of other icons, then painstakingly carved them out with an X-Acto knife and assembled them into 3-D montages, many of which were illuminated with wee light bulbs. O’Donnell’s juxtaposition of religious and pop culture icons earned him instant recognition among art collectors across the country, although what his friend Elaine Meyers calls “his profound shyness” kept him from making much of a national name for himself. Mostly O’Donnell was known in local art circles as a deeply introverted artist who found humor in Bible stories into which he folded pop iconography.
In one of his most recognizable montages from the early 1990s, Howdy Doody and the Virgin Mary cavort among towering cans of Spam. In another, Rubenesque nudes lifted from photos of Renaissance paintings smile shyly from behind giant bleached skulls. O’Donnell loathed politicians and loved political satire; his late-’80s series of magazine covers depicting Ev Mecham in various compromising positions cropped up in several gallery shows, and will
be featured (along with unfinished “outtakes” and raw materials) in the new exhibition this month at Trunk Space.
“I have one of Sean’s pieces that shows Buddha surrounded by the McDonald’s arches,” says Meyers, an art collector who was O’Donnell’s friend for decades. “On one hand, he was just being playful with his art. But on a deeper level, he was very concerned with the human condition, and with how, for
example, we’re balancing Buddha and fast food. In other words, are we finding spiritual fulfillment and having fun?”
It’s too easy to pass off O’Donnell’s mental illness (he was diagnosed as bipolar a few years ago) as the voice that informed his more bizarre work, like the series of self-portraits made by pressing himself against the glass of a color photocopier. (“We’d go to the library and try all the copiers until we found the one with the best black ink,” laughs Penelope Price, a professor in the film school at Scottsdale Community College and one of O’Donnell’s oldest and closest friends.) In each of these, O’Donnell is seen clutching a symbol of femininity — a Madonna; a wine bottle shaped like a naked woman — that Lange says depicts the late artist’s clarion cry. “He wanted more than anything to have a romantic love,” she says through tears. “He thought no woman would ever love him, and so much of his work is about that disappointment.”
Although much of O’Donnell’s best and most revealing work does address a longing for romantic love, Price says her friend’s deepest regret was the unfulfilled promises made by religion. “He’d been raised Catholic,” she says, “and he was disappointed that the promises that religion made — that life had meaning, that spirituality lifted you up — didn’t come true. He was very angry about this, yet Sean loved the beauty of religious imagery. You can see that beautiful imbalance in the arrangement of objects in his work.”
O’Donnell, who had no formal training in artistic technique, was recognized early on by collectors as “an important artist,” according to the ASU Art Museum’s Ted Decker, who owns several O’Donnell pieces. “For having a soft voice, he delivered a big punch in expressing his personal life convictions about society, religion, and politics,” Decker says. “He was the essence of what a good artist is. We
won’t see someone like Sean again for a long time.”
The truth is, outside of his small circle of friends, few saw much of O’Donnell while he was still alive.
Something of a recluse, the bearded, often shabbily dressed artist was occasionally spotted hunched in a corner at one of Lange’s gallery openings, or seated across from her at their weekly lunches at Juan’s Authentic Mexican Food cafe. During their last couple of lunches, Lange ate tacos while O’Donnell stared into his lap and wept. “At our last lunch,” Lange recalls, “he brought me his latest piece, and he said it was the best work of art that anyone had ever made.” The photo montage depicts a multicolored wrestler’s mask suspended against a black background and surrounded by five-pointed stars. Lange believes this piece is O’Donnell’s depiction of his own suicide. Shortly after their lunch meeting on January 25, O’Donnell drove to a strip mall at 32nd Street and Indian School Road, parked, and shot himself in the head with a .44 Magnum revolver.
“My husband Tom used to say that Sean’s was an artistic mind uncluttered by reality,” Elaine Meyers says. “And what I admired most about him was that he didn’t need our reality to create his.”
As Lange is preparing to leave O’Donnell’s house, there’s a knock on the door. It’s a service man from Salt River Project, who says he’s there to shut off the electricity. “Who asked you to come?” Lange wants to know. The SRP guy holds up his clipboard and points to the name on his work order. “Sean O’Donnell. He called us yesterday.” Lange glances over at the many color photocopies of O’Donnell’s face stacked near the door. It does seem like something Seany would do, she seems to be thinking, call SRP from beyond the grave.
Finally, for maybe the first time in the 18 years since they became friends, Lange chooses her own reality over Sean O’Donnell’s.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “You can’t turn the power off. I need to get Sean’s things in order. And he didn’t call you. He’s dead. He killed himself.” SRP looks around the room — at the scattered clippings, the wrestlers’ masks, the Jesuses — and says something that Sean O’Donnell would have loved.
“Yeah,” he says. “Sometimes that happens.”