A Bead on Human Folly, Hilary Thimmesh, O.S.B.
When old Highway 52 was made into I-94 in the late 70’s, a frontage road to serve the people on Collegeville Road became necessary. It cut through the countryside just north of the O’Connell’s house, eating up most of the lawn and a few nice evergreens that Joe had planted. Joe did not think kindly of this development but in the end couldn’t prevent it, so he did the next best thing and produced a commentary on it in his 1978 engraving Commandment.
In the picture, about 10” x 17”, a monster bulldozer wreathed in swirling black emissions from its exhaust stack bears down on a double row of ovoid heads rolling on the ground like so many jack-o’-lanterns or Easter eggs with painted faces. The eleven heads in the front row all face forward and are unaware of their peril. They variously smile, smirk, look wise, cast conniving glances. The row behind them is already overshadowed by the jaws of the great machine that will swallow them up and is in some disarray. They tumble, grin inanely, become hollow eyes in blank masks.
The machine is one of Joe’s wonderful inventions. Its radiator comes almost straight at the viewer from the center of the composition, blank white headlights in relief printing at its upper corners, hydraulic pistons and roads connecting indistinctly to a giant set of pointed teeth, also in relief, where the blade should be. The operator’s gloved left hand rests idly on the tallest in a set of three vertical levers; the right hand grips a control stick. The hands are the only human features of the operator, who is dwarfed by the machine and appears only as a shape with goggle lenses for eyes. A cigarette projects from where the mouth must be. Across the lower half of the picture the monster teeth frame a legend bearing the commandment: “thou SHALL NOT try to STOP that which WE KNOW to be PROGRESS.”
In the hands of another artist this work might have been no more than a bitter cartoon—sarcastic, cynical, ill-tempered. In Joe’s hands it becomes a commentary on fallible humanity. I have asked myself how he manages time after time to draw a bead on human folly and still telegraph to the viewer that God hasn’t quit loving the world. I don’t know Joe’s secret, but I know that after living with his “commandment” for nearly twenty years I find it more reassuring than threatening.
Maybe it’s the very exaggeration that makes me smile—the demonic fumes like flickering evil tongues, the big teeth filed to stiletto sharpness, the capital letters profiling the overweening arrogance of those who know best. Maybe something about the balance of the composition holds out hope for ultimate sense and stability. Maybe sheer technical mastery cheers the beholder unawares. Whatever the secret, this is one of Joe’s masterpieces and to me one of this most characteristic works.
Reprinted with the permission of the Liturgical Press, the Order of Saint Benedict, Collegeville, Minnesota, from Divine Favor: The Art of Joseph O'Connell. Editor, Colman O'Connell. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, c1999. CSB, SJU and SJP Libraries Oversize N 6537.O265 D58 1999.