Autumn 2008

Turning clutter into gold

Dogs & Dice

Martin O'Neill
John Frum Press, £10, available from www.cutitout.co.uk

For most of us, clutter is the enemy, the bills and cards and tickets and cuttings that threaten to overwhelm our already chaotic lives. The entropy of everyday living ensures that when we look for that missing memory stick or chequebook (remember them?), all we can find are bus tickets, club flyers and the unreadable business card of a designer whose name we couldn’t pronounce in the first place.

But it’s here where Martin O’Neill, finds a rich seam of ‘collage gold’. In Dogs & Dice he fashions his raw materials into vivid artworks, full of meaning and melancholy. If Peter Blake is the Paul McCartney of collage, then O’Neill is its Tom Waits, a pre-digital artist for a post-digital age.

O’Neill is much in demand as a commercial illustrator: his client list includes designers, ad agencies, book publishers and The Guardian, which has commissioned O’Neill to illustrate its forthcoming ‘How to write’ series of slim supplements. The dust jacket to Dogs & Dice is a busy poster, a controlled explosion of cut-out pictures and type that is more exuberant than the interior. Underneath, the cardboard cover is a sober list of O’Neill’s studio contents, obsessive and poignant in the manner of Paul Elliman or Stuart Bailey (see ‘Vertical writing’, Eye 47); photographs show that he files his clippings in metal cabinets with drawers labelled ‘Women & Boobies’, ‘Digital Bollocks’ and ‘Dogs and Gambling’.

Inside, O’Neill’s work becomes darker, with glue-ings and daubings that evoke all manner of things: film noir snowscapes; Psycho remade by Hockney. Photos of his collections, crammed into studio shelves, look like the evidence for a bizarre court case. One spread is made from Rolodex-shaped ‘samples’ of O’Neill’s collection of bits: tickets, labels, maps, graph paper, ancient cheques.

Luke Pendrell contributes the opening and closing essays, and has edited O’Neill’s own stories into isolated fragments that sit by some of the images. ‘The Mickey Mouse ride at Littlehampton in the early eighties was a death trap,’ accompanies a cut-out, scribbled-over picture of a coach; the bleak sky is made from the foot of a letter where only ‘Yours faithfully’ and the signature are visible.