Sean O’Connor is a jack-of-all-trades, master-of-all kind of artist. He’s a painter, illustrator, graphic designer, art director – oh, and musician. With an impressive resumé that spans across multiple industries, including advertising, fashion, and social media, we just had to explore the depths of his creative mind.
Recently, the Brooklyn-based artist has been focusing more on painting. Drawing inspiration from the traditional Greco-Roman aesthetic, Sean reimagines this style for modern-day reality. His work explores the constructed identity of men and reflects on the ever-present narcissism in the age of social media. In other words, he’s breaking down stereotypes, one painting at a time.
Tell us about your background.
I am from Indianapolis, Indiana, but have lived in New York and Brooklyn now for about 15 years.
I can’t say my path has been exactly determined or planned, and really I only started pursuing art as more than a hobby about five years ago. Before then I tended to keep it to myself, drawing and painting little pieces for friends and family. But in the past several years, I’ve made some really great connections with my audience, and look forward to what the future holds for all of this.
You earned both a Bachelor and a Masters of Fine Arts from Parsons School of Design. What was the greatest skill you acquired or developed through your education?
My career has definitely taken many forms, working across many areas of design and art such as fashion, advertising, and social media.
I think having this design background informs my art in a passive way by giving my perspective a more graphic and bold aesthetic for my figures and representation.
I think when it comes to schooling though, it really is what you take out of it. For graduate school, I really didn’t connect to many of the students or teachers, but I still learned the hard skills I wanted from it and did make some great connections in the long run.
You have a very unique and defining style. Can you tell us what the process of finding that style has been like for you?
I pull iconography from Grecian art, muscle magazines, mid-century pin-ups, advertising, and social media. With my most recent work, I attempt to reflect the world we live in with a humourous, honest, and sometimes sombre undertone. It has been a struggle, but finding more of my own visual perspective has been a great achievement.
Can you describe your creative process? Where do you start? What do you usually have on or around you?
I read a lot! I try to read or watch artist interviews or writings on their practice. The Keith Haring Journals, for instance, are a must-read! But overall, what many, many artists always reflect on is “looking.”
Look at your own art over and over again; and look at what inspires and connects you to it over and over again.
I’ve noticed that when I do this, I do create art that is more connected to me, and then inversely connects to more people.
Where do you draw inspiration from? Who are some of your favourite artists, and how have they influenced your thinking, art, and career path?
My studio is crammed with books: artist books, art history texts, comics, textile and pattern books, and many other genres. They all aid in my overall practice.
I also draw from social media a lot too, since this is the vast world we live in now and there’s a great amount of subject matter within that. It affects how we perceive ourselves and each other now.
I am also highly influenced by more illustrative artists who reference pop art and comics like Ray Pettibon, Aubrey Beardsley, and the Chicago Imagists group, specifically Christina Ramberg. Some more controversial artists like Mark Kostabi also influence me.
Through your work, you try to challenge the glorified perceptions of masculinity. How were you drawn into that?
There has always been an ideal for men or women as a society that we tend to look up to. For men, it generally revolves around strong, athletic, stoic men— athletes, sports figures, masculine actors, and rappers or rock stars. I think for gay men, this can cause even more of a feeling of inadequacy, as if gay men don’t measure up to “real” men.
But of course, all men, and women, share all emotions and vulnerable states. Even the term “femme” sounds derogatory to me these days as if you are less than if you have “feminine” qualities. Even that specific term reinforces these sexist archetypes.
With my work I really try to turn all these ideals on their head — muscular men crying; sexualized men in vulnerable states.
I try to push these stereotypes to absurd levels, and also try to bring some humour to the overall concept of gender.
What advice do you have for aspiring artists?
I am an extremely sensitive, creative person. I struggle on a daily basis questioning my work and where I am going.
Some sound advice I try to follow for myself: create because you love it; never compare your work to anyone else; and pound the pavement and work harder than anyone else. And always keep your eyes open.
What’s next for you?
2019 has been a nice year in that I have been able to step back a bit and really hone in on what I want to achieve visually in the near future.
I was fortunate enough to be included in a group show this summer at Palais de Tokyo in Paris, which is a contemporary art centre displaying temporary exhibitions. The exhibit I’m in, City Prince/sses, runs through September 9. I am also very excited to be debuting a new art zine at the MOMA PS1 Art Book Fair in September.