The most ambitious layers of imagery are found in the most recent piece in the show, the commanding AMERICA, which occupies its own freestanding panel just inside the gallery's front doors. (Like the show's other three horizontal blackboards, it's a sprawling 48-by-96-inch piece; the rest, all verticals, are 40 by 30 inches.) Here the layers fade in and out of focus, so that what at first looks like a blackboard blanketed with random stenciled letters yields a composition that includes the Statue of Liberty and a large eagle insignia, as well as colored stencilings of a boat, a gunman, and a bridge. Also visible is a color "photograph" of part of the Manhattan skyline, including the World Trade Center towers and a portion of the Empire State Building.
It's an imposing piece but also an oddly anticlimactic one. Its rich inventory of images, once tallied, seems less a summation of the United States than a glimpse of New York City, and only a part of the city at that. Does O'Connor really mean to suggest that Manhattan is all there is to America, or is he offering up an ironic assessment? Hard to tell.
AMERICA is meant to signal the end of the exhibition, which is organized chronologically. It's positioned so close to the early pieces, from the late '60s, however, that you could almost mistake it for a starting point rather than a finishing one. What sets it apart is its technical mastery.
The dozen or so nonblackboard paintings, drawings, and mixed-media pieces that make up the "& Their Origins" part of the show aren't exactly juvenilia, but they seem only marginally connected to the complex aesthetic O'Connor began to explore with the blackboards. Object Dart, a 1977 ink-on-paper drawing of a dart, is a witty if rather obvious homage to Magritte, and there are touches in the 1982 watercolor Berkeley Botanical Garden 1965 -- a ring stain from a coffee cup, the illusion of a sheet of paper ripped from a spiral binder -- that hint at the trompe l'oeil effects O'Connor plays with later.
But aside from the crisp simplicity of the exhibition's earliest piece, a spare 1968 abstract called Blue Fragment, painted in acrylic on paper, there's nothing in these older works with the depth and resonance of the artist's more recent efforts. Next to them most of their predecessors seem like so much padding. Clearly, John O'Connor has found his milieu with these strangely haunting blackboard paintings.
"Real Illusions: John O'Connor's Blackboards & Their Origins" is on display through May 23 at the Schmidt Center Gallery, Florida Atlantic University, 777 Glades Rd., Boca Raton, 561-297-2966.