Luke O’Halloran

October 27, 2020

Following his inclusion in the group show “Intimate Companions” in Provincetown this summer, painter Luke O’Halloran is set to present his hypnotic oils of playing cards and carnie showmanship in his first New York solo exhibition, “Dealing,” opening at Kapp Kapp Gallery on Mischief Night (October 30) and on through December 31. The California-born artist’s symbolic strong suits will be on full display: Keep a weather eye open for a dead man’s hand. Nearby is his lively rendition of the woman sawed in half. Below, O’Halloran discusses his interest in legerdemain, luck, and the powers of suspense.

I DON’T REALLY CARE if art makes sense or not, but I like when it means something. Cards are commonplace. My grandmother and I didn’t speak the same language, but we could play cards. She grew up speaking Ilocano and my mother grew up speaking Tagalog––both dialects of the Philippines which are not alike––and I grew up speaking English. There’s this generational, linguistic disconnect between all of us. I began making art as a way for me to get thoughts out of my head and feel as though someone else got them. That became addictive.

When you make art, you make mistakes. You learn to fix them or not fix them and continually move forward. Games of chance ritualize the fact that life is risky and great loss is often built in. I want my paintings to be hopeful images. I also want to hold close the possibility of losing, which ups the ante and makes me excited. I think we’re usually captivated by that which terrifies us. I’m contemplating chance and luck and randomness, but I don’t use chance as a process or a method. I’m not splattering paint. These are very tightly composed images. It’s what they depict that is out of control.

I’ve learned to like the moments when everything is up in the air. I like how movement can convey narrative, a before and an after. When I have ideas, images in my brain that I want to paint, I am looking for that sense of possibility. The backgrounds of my new paintings are these boundless blues and grays. The falling objects’ only reference to place is their influence under gravity. I often think about cats falling, and the fact that cats have a nonlethal terminal velocity, which means that they don’t die when they fall from whatever height they fall from. I wish I had a nonlethal terminal velocity. Sometimes I think I do. Cats also have other adaptations that let them not die, such as their righting reflex, which lets them always land on their feet—another thing to aspire to. I’m making all these images of cats falling through the air.

I lived in Colorado for seven years before moving to New York. Last summer, I spent four weeks back there. I was in this tiny town of five hundred people. It’s in the largest alpine valley on Earth, surrounded by 14,000-foot mountains. Some friends of mine were going on a poetry tour of the Southwest, so they asked me to house sit for them. I was able to use their studio. Sometimes I know exactly what to paint, other times I’m painting in a searching way. I made my first painting of playing cards there. A quick card flourish, which is the move a magician does in between sleight of hand to display the deck. You know you’re being tricked, but it’s impossible to look away.

When I got back to New York, I opened the box full of work I had made that summer: a thick stack of work on paper. I saw the flourish, pinned it to the wall, and kept looking at it. From there, I started to make drawings from online cardistry tutorials and videos I made of hands shuffling cards. A friend took photos of me tossing cards in the air. I started painting all of these.

I maxed out my studio walls and found the largest canvas I could fit down my stairs to paint an image of cards fluttering through the air. I have a space to work for free in the basement of my apartment. It’s the entire square footage of the building and it was unoccupied, so I took it over. Sometimes, the super will come down or someone from National Grid will be fixing the pipes. Those are the best studio visits.

In New York City, it’s a privilege to be surrounded by other artists and queer people. I know it’s a small patch of the world, but that’s why I like living here. I grew up in Los Angeles and have moved through a few small towns since then. I enjoy hearing all the misconceptions about small towns now that I’m back in a big town. I find quiet small towns are not that quiet. There are nemeses in small towns. Everyone needs a nemesis. It’s interesting for me to see how people change and what makes someone hurtful. I think bad people need good friends. Of course, I like closure, but in my work, I don’t want any closure. It’s the moment right before you win or lose, that’s the best part.

— As told to Thora Siemsen