Most people would be hard-pressed to call Wal-Mart a source of artistic inspiration. A place to purchase peanut butter, cereal and other mundane necessities? Yes. But a rendezvous spot with transcendence? Hardly.
Yet that's exactly what artist Brendan O'Connell sees in the sprawling big-box stores. For the past decade, O'Connell has been snapping photographs inside dozens of Wal-Marts. The images have served as inspiration for an ongoing series of paintings of everyday life — much of which involves shopping, which O'Connell calls "that great contemporary pastime."
"Wal-Mart was an obvious place" to look for inspiration, he tells The Salt. "It's sort of the house that holds all American brands."
Given that Wal-Mart now dominates U.S. grocery sales, it's not surprising that images of food pervade O'Connell's art. His paintings depict shoppers examining ingredient lists, aisles that offer endless vistas of potato chip bags, Jif peanut butter jars standing shoulder to shoulder on the shelf.
I first spoke with O'Connell back in February, just after The New Yorker ran a lengthy profile of him. (As that article noted, his work has garnered enthusiasm at Wal-Mart headquarters.) Since then, media coverage of his work has spiked. He's been featured on The Colbert Report and CBS News, among other places, and received multiple invitations to speak at TEDx events (he chose the upcoming event in Atlanta, where he grew up).
Some have likened his work to Andy Warhol's soup cans, but without the overriding sense of irony. Others see echoes of the post-impressionists — a comparison that amuses O'Connell.
"The post-impressionists were painting the commercial boulevards of Paris," he told fake newsman Stephen Colbert, adding, "I'm painting the aisles of Wal-Mart."
Wal-Mart stores, he notes, are "probably one of the most trafficked interior spaces in the world." In the tall, open, cathedral-like ceilings of Wal-Mart's big-box stores, he sees parallels to church interiors of old.
"There is something in us that aspires to some kind of transcendence," he told me back in February. "And as we've culturally turned from religious things, we've turned our transcendence to acquisition and satisfying desires."
In conversation, O'Connell comes across as thoughtful and urbane. He's well aware that, as a company, Wal-Mart can be polarizing. But "regardless of your feelings about it," he told me back then, "it just is. It's like an irrevocable reality that's part of our experience."
And as artistic matter, it's a part of everyday life that seems to have resonated with lots of people. Since the media blitz began two months ago, sales of O'Connell's work have jumped dramatically, he told me this week. "I sold more in a week than I did in some years," he says.
Media reports have lingered over the fact that some of his largest paintings — those 8 feet by 9 feet or so — can fetch $40,000 or more. But O'Connell says it's the small works in the $1,000-$1,200 range that have been selling. And the people doing the buying, he says, come from all over the country.
"What I'm struck by is this relationship to brands," he says, noting that buyers have called to inquire about specific paintings: " 'Do you still have the Corn Flakes? ... I want the Maxwell House.' Whatever brand it is that they have a personal relationship with. And that, to me, is fascinating."
O'Connell's work is probably out of the price range of the average Wal-Mart shopper. But he's passionate about a project to bring art to the masses. The idea behind Everyartist.me is to create a collaborative art project involving 1 million elementary school kids across the country. And all the recent attention on his Wal-Mart series has helped jump-start funding for the project — which raised $100,000 in the past two months, he says.
The goal, he says, is to create a widespread, accessible forum where kids feel free to be creative. "It's just a seed that's put in," he says. "We don't know if it's going to sow, but it has the potential to be transformative."