Betty O’Hare’s art focuses on our fast-food nation
Amidst the buzz of people at the recent opening of Betty O’Hare’s provocative sculpture and painting show at Avenue 9 Gallery, it was possible to find the still point. I stood before O’Hare’s 3-by-4-foot acrylic painting “Mystical Journey” and gazed into the area near the top that resembled a circle of light shining into this abstract sea of mostly blues and black. I could imagine that I was deep under the ocean looking up toward the surface. The black lines squiggling above me in the sunlit water became fish, and the silence, mystery and stillness of moving about the watery deep was palpable.
One of O’Hare’s goals is to create this sense of peaceful focus and imaginative play for her audience. Her meditative abstract paintings are intended to stand in opposition to her brightly painted, shiny, 3-D, cartoon-like sculptures depicting America’s “chaotic obsession” with junk food and use of eating to cope with life’s stressors.
O’Hare actually began drawing pictures of food as a young child, partly as a way to cope with her mother’s death when she was only 2 years old, and the resultant shuttling between neglectful foster homes in which she never had enough to eat. Later, as an adult in Santa Cruz, O’Hare became certified to counsel people with addictive behaviors such as eating disorders, but ended that career, explaining simply, “I didn’t like it.” She returned to her art, receiving an MFA from San Jose State and showing her work in such places as the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art and the Los Gatos Museum before moving with her husband to Chico three years ago
I sat with O’Hare and Avenue 9 co-owner Dolores Mitchell two days prior to the opening of the exhibition.
“We are a nation of quick food and ‘grab-it-on-the-go,’ and it’s not making us healthy,” O’Hare stated plainly. Her sculptures are thus deliberately “loud, obsessive and in-your-face” to match a culture in which food is being practically shoved down one’s throat at every turn. From our early experiences with “our mommies who give us a cookie if we’re good,” to the ad-packed media, to the endless “donuts, coffee, French fries and candy available on any corner in the U.S.,” this is a society, O’Hare argues, that incessantly promotes food as pacifier, food as reward. Ours is also “a society where more than half of the population is overweight.”
Her “Midnight Snack"—inspired by her friend’s nighttime raid on the refrigerator—is a huge, gaudy, disembodied red mouth full of food being fed even more food by the large hand attached to it.
“I can’t believe I ate the whole thing!” is a giant (58-inch tall) wall-hung ice cream sundae, complete with whipped cream and a cherry, with its hand holding its poor, full “tummy.” “Mother Love” is another huge pair of lips that have sprouted arms offering the viewer a plate of chocolate chip cookies.
“The sculptures are meant to be humorous,” O’Hare tells me. “But, like a stand-up comedian, they are dark and serious underneath.”
“The sculptures are so much a part of popular culture, of consumerism,” Mitchell points out. It’s no wonder that the giant mouth sculptures bring to mind popular music icons like the Rolling Stones and the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine. O’Hare’s sculptures tap significantly into popular cultural norms and invite layers of interpretation.
“The paintings [on the other hand] are an escape from popular culture,” Mitchell adds. “There’s a sense of floating in space. …”
A fan of Dr. Phil, who recommends meditation as a substitute for destructive habits such as overeating and to relieve stress in general, O’Hare says of painting: “It’s a meditative process. … I don’t know what I will do until I approach the canvas.” Her paintings bear names such as “Tranquility,” “Mantra” and “Shift in Consciousness.”
“I have found that … painting [is] spiritual and meditative for me and that being in this state lessens stress," O’Hare writes in her Artist’s Statement. "The paintings in this exhibit are meant to have a calming effect. I hope that within them you will find a sense of serenity."