Typically, when an artist’s work deals explicitly with one corporation or another, some sort of social critique is involved. And if not intended, it’s presumed to be involved anyway. So the two sides often regard each other with suspicion, if not outright hostility, and you’d think that would be the case with Brendan O’Connell, a painter, and Walmart, the supermarket leviathan whose shelves often serve as his subjects. But as Susan Orlean writes in this week’s New Yorker, that’s not quite the case.
After reviewing O’Connell’s works, which are often investigations of light and color and pattern as they exist, say, in an eight-foot stretch of neatly ordered cereal boxes, Walmart decided that they were not indictments of retail, but rather celebrations of it:
[O’Connell] had never had any official communication with Walmart beyond the local managers inviting him to leave. A dealer who was interested in his work had once approached the company about acquiring one of the paintings but was told that Walmart didn’t buy art. Then, by chance, the Globe article was forwarded to Suraya Bliss, a senior director of digital strategy at the company. Bliss says that she has always been interested in visual things, and collects art herself, and she liked what O’Connell was doing. Instead of interpreting the paintings as arch commentary, she thought he was speaking to the company’s mission. "I got in touch with him and said, 'Let’s talk and get to know each other,'" Bliss told me. After their conversation, she was convinced that his work was 'very pure and very genuine.' She arranged for him to take pictures in stores whenever he wanted, and offered to let him photograph from a cherry picker in one of the New Jersey superstores.
A little heartwarming, isn’t it? And as it happened, the company did end up making an exception to its "we don’t buy art" rule. One of O’Connell’s largest works now hangs in the Walmart visitors’ center in Bentonville, Arkansas. Subscribers can read the piece on the New Yorker website.