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A commentary on the American outdoorsman: Bryan O’Neill’s “Violent Ends”

Graduate Student Bryan O’Neill’s exhibit, “Violent Ends, may at first seem like a mash-up of Dr. Seuss and “Survivor Man”; however, upon closer examination, the exhibit depicts the contradictions present within the idea of the American outdoorsman. When the viewer first enters the gallery space, they are greeted with what seems to be a campground.

An array of ax handles varying in size and color are hung in a line on the far wall. Cast epoxy ax heads are hung in a straight line on the opposite wall. According to the Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture, O’Neill’s work “explores intersections of mankind and Nature.”

In O’Neill’s description of “Violent Ends,” he explains, “If trees are the supreme symbol of nature, then the axe is the antithesis of the tree, and in turn the antithesis of nature. Yet the axe is also a modern symbol of the outdoorsman.” “Violent Ends plays on this contradiction of the ax as a symbol of wilderness by using absurdity. The axes have been disassembled, the handles separate from the ax heads. O’Neill states, “…the axe handles pose no threat to the trees from which they are born.” The structure of the axes can symbolize the link between nature and humanity.

The handles of the axes are all made of wood and carved into their shape by humans. This is representative of how humans shape nature. Humans use tools and machinery to alter landscapes and thus possess power over nature. The ax heads are made of resin and can further express the artificial world built by humans.

The physical act of separating the ax handle from the ax head represents an attempt to protect the natural landscape and therefore an attempt to alter the perception of the American outdoorsman. This commentary of the American outdoorsman is present throughout O’Neill’s exhibit. O’Neill states, “My work explores outdoorsmanship’s place in modern America as I attempt to deconstruct and understand the mindset of the modern outdoorsman, both within myself and in American society.”

Part of American outdoorsmanship has to do with a return to self-awareness. O’Neill displays this return to self-awareness through his involved process of creation. For example, in the middle of the exhibit is a tent-like structure made of knitted polypropylene rope, wood and stone titled “Shelter.” The repetitive process of knitting serves as a form of meditation and allows the creator to become attuned with their sense of self. The same is true about the wooden ax handles. Over a dozen ax handles hang on the exhibit wall and each one of them is hand carved. Carving ax handles is an extremely time-consuming and repetitive process that helps the carver become more mindful of themselves.

O’Neill demonstrates the odd character of the American outdoorsman both in his final products and his creative processes. The outdoorsman is very present within American society, yet he is hardly ever examined. O’Neill’s pieces “Violent Ends and “Shelter remind American society of the constant struggle between man’s want to return to nature and their desire to conquer it.