Got milk?

Cerreality: new works by John O’Donnell

By Ashley Jonas

Photo: John O’Donnell, “Cereal Study 3 (Fruit Loops)”

I thought it appropriate to sit down and eat a bowl of Trix in preparation for writing this article. As I poured the brightly colored cereal into my bowl, I noticed the sound it made. It was eerily reminiscent of the quintessential sound effects that indicate the transition away from reality into a dream sequence in films. The cereal began to dissolve in my mouth before I even began chewing. I was aware of how many different colors I could get into one spoonful. The taste was curiously homogenous. I expected each color to be representative of a coinciding flavor of fruit. As I got to the end of the bowl, I was disappointed I’d be done eating it soon. And then, of course, there was the milk that had taken on an awkward pink hue. What to do with the milk? Drink it. Obviously, drink it. I was pretty sure John O’Donnell would.

John O’Donnell is an assistant professor of printmaking at the University of Connecticut and lives in New Haven. He will come from Connecticut to bring to us Cerreality, his upcoming solo exhibition, which opens at The Blue House Gallery on Nov. 8 and runs through Nov. 30.

I talked with O’Donnell about his artistic practice, Bart Simpson, the Greek mythical king Sisyphus, hope, mockery and a plethora of other topics.

O’Donnell’s work consists of collage, assemblage, performance, printmaking, video and installation. His process, imagery and subject matter make references to consumer culture, fantasy, nostalgia, Dadaism and architecture through the use of, well … breakfast cereal.

O’Donnell’s decision to use Trix, Fruit Loops or Lucky Charms as a material for art-making is multifaceted. On the most basic level, this material is fun, silly and a little ridiculous. It’s also a material that provides accessibility to more complex ideas present in O’Donnell’s work. “Everyone eats cereal,” O’Donnell said. “There is a transparency to the material. It’s overt.” Meaning, it’s recognizable to a wide range of people. Not only that, but it can be attached to one’s memories of being a kid. Everyone, at some point in his or her childhood, has most likely eaten a bowl of cereal. To many generations, actually, it was a staple, especially on Saturday mornings.

Admittedly romantic about and nostalgic for the halcyon days of childhood, O’Donnell recalled, “I grew up in the ’80s. I waited all week to watch Saturday morning cartoons. It was also the only day of the week I was allowed to eat sugary cereals.”

O’Donnell uses cereal to create playfully abstracted structures that read as archways, rainbows, monuments and whatever else your imagination decides to project onto them. They are approachable and familiar yet exotic and alluring. They look like objects made to use in a ritual – a ritual most likely performed on Saturday morning before sitting down to watch Pee-wee’s Playhouse.

O’Donnell and I talked about art-making materials. Sculpture that is made of bronze, marble, wood (the traditional stuff) has a strong history in the context of art. But what about cereal? Does cereal have a strong connection to history? According to O’Donnell, absolutely. It connects viewers with their own personal history. Like O’Donnell said, “Everyone eats cereal.” I find that a rather generous and kind idea. It gives the viewer some power – an insight and some common ground to stand on.

While the material is an entry point into the artwork, it is also a vehicle for larger and more specific observations. He points out that by using breakfast cereal as a building block for sculptural works, he is also making allusions to the construction of images.

Follow my logic here. What’s in a box of Trix? Colorful little dots (cereal). What is a computer image made of? Colorful little dots (pixels). When we look at one of Monet’s Water Lily paintings, what are we actually looking at? Colorful little dots (paint). By using a material that we all have a personal history with, such as cereal, O’Donnell is able to lead us to questions concerning the digital age and art history. Pretty smart.

So what can we expect to see at O’Donnell’s upcoming exhibition? We will certainly be able to see (and smell) some of his cereal structures, one of which will be a giant archway that begins outside the gallery space and bursts into it through the wall. I myself am extremely curious about that one. O’Donnell will also be showing some two-dimensional work that is tender, hopeful, but also speaks about futility. In addition, he will be making a tiny site-specific installation housed in a cabinet. The night of O’Donnell’s opening, he is going to do a performance piece. The content will reveal itself only during the performance, so you’ll HAVE to make it out to the opening. If it is anything like other performances O’Donnell has done, it is sure to be playful, engaging and a little messy.

Cerreality opens Saturday, Nov. 8 and runs through Sunday, Nov. 30 at The Blue House Gallery, located at 3325 Catalpa Drive in Dayton. There will be an opening reception on Saturday, Nov. 8 from 6-9 p.m. For more information, please visit

Ashley Jonas is an artist, curator and writer. After completing her Bachelor of Fine Art from the University of Florida, she went on to receive a Master of Fine Art from the University of Colorado at Boulder. Ashley currently lives and works in Dayton. Her artistic and curatorial practices are rooted in an everlasting search for moments of wonder. Reach Ashley at 

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