by Zack Smith
Mitch O'Connell's colorful, crazed pop-art illustrations have appeared everywhere from the cover of Newsweek (four times) to a recent full-page story in The Wall Street Journal, but you'll have to forgive him for hoping for a good-sized turnout at his appearance at Nice Price Books in Raleigh on April 27.
"I’ll be in North Carolina meeting my fiancé’s father," says O'Connell, on the phone from his home in Chicago. "My only goal is that hopefully a respectable line is in place to impress him.
"So I impose this responsibility on the people of Raleigh—hopefully it’s a burden they’re willing to shoulder."
O'Connell's on tour to promote Mitch O'Connell: The World's Best Artist, a new hardcover collection from Last Gasp Publishing that offers an extensive retrospective of his pop culture-infused career in art, providing colorful, chaotic pics that draw from decades of American iconography.
"I’m lucky that my grandparents and my parents saved a lot of my stuff, so there were still books available from childhood and adolescence," O'Connell says. "It let us give the book an actual narrative, and hopefully a humorous one."
In his career, O'Connell's done everything from rock band posters to editorial cartoons to a recent line of tattoo flashes. “Sometimes, wherever I can get a paycheck is where I’m going. Other times, when I have money in the bank, I’m pursuing gallery shows,” O'Connell says. "But I’m lucky to be doing what I love—and I’m able to do things that are really personal to me, that are what I want. It feels like the best of seven or eight worlds."
His work often pays homage to the style of such unlikely artistic icons as infamous "doe-eyed children" painters Walter and Margaret Keane (soon to be portrayed by Christoph Waltz and Amy Adams in the upcoming Tim Burton film Big Eyes), and he unironically loves this oft-derided style. "I wouldn’t give [my use of the doe-eyed style] a prestigious title like 'satire'—it’s not satire," says O'Connell, who adds that he keeps about 40 or so "big-eyed" paintings in the stairwell leading into his basement.
"I’m just blatantly swiping the image of the big-eyed characters. I just love all manner of pop art and kitschy Americana—and I love working that all into my paintings."
He's also unapologetic about being known for the curvy, voluptuous females that often recur in his work: "If there’s a way to work a naked woman and big eyes and hot dogs and anything else into a drawing, I’ll find a way to put it in there. If I were ever to be pigeonholed for anything, that would be a very pleasant way to be pigeonholed."
Though O'Connell's busy with a new set of tattoo flashes and more illustration work, including designs for an upcoming tour of 1990s musicians the Gin Blossoms, he's hoping that one of his tattoo designs might let him cut back on his workload. "Hopefully people will stick them under the sun, from lunchboxes to towels lighters to stickers," O'Connell says with a laugh. "If I can come up with my own Hello Kitty or Uglydolls, my work day can just consist of walking to and from the mailbox to pick up the checks. That would be my dream come true."
Mitch O'Connell appears at Nice Price Books in Raleigh on Saturday, April 27 at 6 p.m. to sign copies of Mitch O'Connell: The World's Best Artist. For more information, call 919-829-0230.