By : Catherine M. Camargo

“…..I have to always catch myself to not let the outside world or whatever it is stemming from this stigma of who I am invade my practice......

......Because that makes my practice really really hard—working from the outside rather than in. All of that shit gets in the way.”

-Reginald O’Neal

CC: Reggie, you've had much success not only in your studio practice, but also in creating these incredible murals beyond just locally, having done murals in Austria, Norway and Spain. I'm curious to know if you've had profound (if any), or even just a favorite painting experience in any of these international locations, whether in Europe or in the safety of your Lincoln Road Studio.

RO: There was this one moment I had when I was painting in Nantes, France. I was painting on the opposite side of my mentor. We were painting these two billboards that were facing opposite directions, so I was painting one side and he was painting the other. I remember not knowing if it was me being happy with just how the piece was turning out or what but I was painting this image inside of an image. I had this really, really big lift set up, I had all my paints out and I don't know, the temperature was perfect. It was also almost my birthday. I was just sitting and painting a dope bag but I remember feeling a lot of joy and admiration for the moment, right? Because I felt so far away from home but I was doing this thing that I love. I remember it being one of those moments where I realized that like—Ok I want to continue doing this for a while in my life. It also was a moment that I feel like I search for every time I paint too, to just enjoy being present. Because sometimes it can be really frustrating. Yeah, but I feel like I always go back to that moment for sure.

Reginald O’Neal, IN ARMS REACH, 2018.

CC: That sounds really pretty. You said it was your birthday? How old were you about to turn?

RO: 26 or 27, wow .

CC: (Laughs) Aw okay. When I last visited your studio, we talked a bit about the role of the black performer. You mentioned how Miles Davis used to perform with his back to the audience for personal reasons, maybe nerves. You showed me a small-scale painting of Louis Armstrong performing What a wonderful world in 1967 before what was assumed to be a predominantly white audience. You mentioned how the intensity of expression in his face and his eyes struck you. How do your paintings engage viewers with the concept of performance? What role do you feel your paintings hold?

RO: I think it depends on the context. I feel sometimes when there's friends, family, and people like that who come across and really appreciate the work, that’s one thing. But in the context of people who collect work, I don't really always know what the intention is. I feel sometimes the role of my paintings is farther than I can see or know. I do try to be extremely honest with what it is that I'm doing and hope that my intentions come out. But when I paint something and hang it up on a wall or if I sell it and it’s shown somewhere else, it's really out of my hands. So, I think that whatever role it plays, I have no real control over it. But I do hope that they won't just fall into this boat of being performative. For example, the question that you asked about these jazz figurines I’m painting or Louis Armstrong, these artists have deep intent within their work, right? This is something that they study and they sit with and they really enjoy doing it. The fact that they could perform in front of people and make money off of it and travel the world is a big blessing. Though, I think that the people who hire these artists, whether institutions and all of these, it's usually those groups whose intentions are questionable. For them, it could be performative. That goes for being a painter, being a football player, being a musician, whatever it is, you know. So, I would just like for my work to touch people. I would like for that to be the role in however way it manages to.
CC: Yeah, it definitely feels like the contradiction between the intent of the artist versus simply the act of performance that it may be for viewers consuming it, is really important to you so that's interesting. Let’s get into the next question. I was grateful to get an inside look at some of the beautiful oil paintings ranging in all sizes that you plan to show at your solo opening at Spinello projects during this Art Basel. There are the paintings of the black figurines, and the paintings of the landscapes which you mentioned that you’re going to display in parallel of each other. Can you elaborate on the conceptual connection between those two once more? In your opinion, can each painting independently convey the same depth of conceptuality?

RO: I don't know if they can convey the same message or meaning. I feel like they both can stand on their own but also work cohesively together. I hope that's what people think. In my mind, I think it does. But the figurines are a body, right? The first thing I thought about is it being the representation of a body, the color, and the person who it belongs to—belonging to a specific community. But the fact that it doesn't have a spirit or because it's not living, poses this question about actual paintings. People gravitate towards two dimensional things which don’t have a spirit. Whether it’s the colors or aesthetic, viewers get an idea of where the artist's intention is. People gravitate towards that, but the actual thing, or the actual material is nothing. Again, these are flowers and moments that I've lived in and took photos of. This two-dimensional thing is only my perspective in a snapshot of my experiences. The fact that I am a person and I have a soul outside of my color, or whatever community I belong to—these paintings are things that I just simply enjoy. It's like, it's giving a piece of me but also posing a question of what do people think about me outside of the people that know me? Are the people who are collecting my work collecting it because I’ve documented these pretty places that I'm in or are they into it because it's a black artist making them. I wonder if I created something that doesn't have my skin color or doesn’t have an African American artist's name written on it, would they still be interested? So, I really am posing these questions while also just painting moments that I like. Those concepts and different conversations can still be parallel to each other.

Bescaçon, 2023, Oil on canvas,
5 9 1/2 × 47 3/4 in

CC: How did you arrive at the particular sizes of each piece? These paintings range from precious studies to works that are almost human scale.

RO: Most times it's just a feeling I get for that exact image. It's not like I do studies and then map out the size, it’s almost like I have a feeling for whether this image should be blown up or not. For example, the two Louis Armstrong paintings I knew I wanted to do really small for some reason. But with this cotton piece, the real plant is very small so I wanted to make/paint it really large. People usually do small bouquet paintings, small still life’s. I like the idea of doing this huge still life of this small ass plant. It's really just how close I want people to look at something. I don't know. The reasons change all the time.

CC: You have painted murals in the neighborhood you grew up in, Overtown, and abroad. Has painting abroad ever affected your practice or the outcome of your work?

RO: Yeah. I feel like there’s a lot of people that I've met in the process of painting abroad and also just doing murals. It’s two different things—when I do very big murals, it sometimes takes nine days, eight days, sometimes even six days. When I do canvas work, it takes two weeks, three weeks, even months.

CC: Oh, really? You usually do the murals faster?

RO: Exactly. I have no reason. It just doesn't translate the same. But, um, I think yeah, painting internationally and just having that space and time dedicated to something in particular with no distraction. I try to bring that into my own practice in my studio and try to be extremely focused because there's a lot of distractions that I can have inside of my own space. With painting internationally, I’m often just meeting different people and learning different things from people. People will just come up to me. Also being in a place where I can't really speak certain languages, there's a feeling that my senses are heightened in some ways, if that makes sense.

CC: How about at home? Do you have that experience when painting murals at home in Miami?

RO: Hmm not really. I feel like I'm just more so in my comfort zone and there's just people around
that I know already. I don't think I meet as many people.

CC: (Laughs) Fair enough. So as a black artist from a historically black neighborhood with its own history of challenges.....this originally was not part of the question but I'm just going to add it--I feel like when people write about you or mention you— they always mention that you're from Overtown, you know, because of the history of Overtown. And so, I wonder if you feel pressured to create politically or socially conscious work? Who is your intended audience? Do you experience a sense of responsibility or makers guilt? Who are you trying to reach if anyone at all?

RO: I think that feeling changed when I started to get a bit of popularity within the art world. Because I was painting with this intent where I wasn’t focused on success at all. I was just painting straight from what I know and inspired by the people that I know. A lot of my work I had kept to myself and I wasn't selling it. So, I think that definitely kind of changed when I started to get a bit of success. My environment also started to change too and so now I have to always catch myself to not let the outside world or whatever it is stemming from this stigma of who I am invade my practice. Because that shit makes my practice really really hard—working from the outside rather than in. All of that shit gets in the way. It’s easier when I just do whatever it is that I want to do with whatever idea that I may have read, whether it's radical or if I'm portraying specific things. It just has to sit well with me first. Because all the political and social concepts are not outside of me—I don't just feel them, I have experienced it firsthand. So, it depends on whatever mood I'm leaning towards that makes me create things. I try not to pressure myself or feel outside pressure.

CC: I recently encountered this Mark Rothko quote, and I wondered about your interpretation of it. I don't even know whether you like him as an artist, but the quote is "the most important tool the artist fashions through constant practice is faith in his ability to produce miracles when they are needed". What do you think of that?

RO: I think... damn how do I say this? It's really this unknown thing. I feel like outside of artists, people have this interpretation that artists know exactly what they're doing. Yet, like what he said, the miracles are the magic part. I think that that's what surprises me the most when I create something and it's like... it's good, because most of the time I go into making something feeling like I'm not as good as people perceive me to be. I know I have some insecurities and doubts and all of these things that everybody else has. But when I'm finished with a piece, I think I believe in myself a little bit more, until I have to do the next painting (Reggie laughs). I feel that what comes with the miracle part is really letting go of yourself and the ego. Up to this point, wherever you find yourself, you've invested countless hours mastering the skills and techniques you practice. Each painting becomes a form of practice in itself. So, I think that most of the frustration that happens is when I'm trying to be in control of the very process of the art making. So, I really believe in that quote, for sure. It's a good one.

CC: And finally, what is next for you? You can talk about your upcoming shows and what can we anticipate from your future work?

RO: From future work? I have no idea. I feel stuck in this thing right now with the figurines, and these landscapes, and it's kind of a place  
that I want to be. But that could change next year when I am in a different environment. As far as what's coming up, I have a solo show soon. I think I might have like 12 or 15 paintings at Spinello projects gallery and then running congruent with that is going to be my participation in Art Basel Miami in the meridian session sector at the convention center and it's going to include a sculpture which I think is 12 feet tall or 10 feet. Then at the Historic Hampton House, I'm going to be showing another large sculpture of the figurines. So yeah, that's as far as I can see. But I'm trying to figure out what's going to happen after those things and what opportunities will open up but I don't know yet.

CC: I'm excited to see those sculptures. All right. Well, thank you Reggie. Let’s end it here.

RO: Thank you!

© Q Magazine Interview: Catherine M Camargo
Editor: Catherine M Camargo
Photo courtesy: Reginald O’Neal