The first time I ever got stoned, I told my college boyfriend that I finally understood The Beatles. Naturally, he laughed his ass off. Unlike most of us plebes, who get a little high and think we're creative geniuses, Vernon O'Meally turns his psychedelic experiences into luminous, detailed works of art.
Inspired by funk, old school R&B, psychedelic rock, and punk—and what it feels like to listen to that music while tripping balls—O'Meally's paintings are like synesthesia on canvas. He paints what he hears. Blaring horns become bold, frenetic lines atop a neon background; wailing guitars are sweeping ribbons of charcoal.
O'Meally's paintings are unlike the "art" your stoner roommate might make. They're nuanced, imaginative, and precise. The Atlanta-born artist has an encyclopedic knowledge of classic jams, and he deconstructs his favorite music with the precision of a composer before splicing it back together on canvas.
VICE caught up with O'Meally at the opening of his solo show This Way to That Way at one of New York's coolest new art spaces, ABXY on the Lower East Side.
VICE: What inspires your art?
Vernon O’Meally: Most of my inspiration comes from music—psychedelic rock, a bunch of old school R&B, this and that. Growing up, my dad listened to a lot of old school music. He’s Jamaican and he listened to a lot of reggae and old school slow songs. Still to this day, the saddest of songs don’t get me down; they make me very happy. I just love the groove of it. It’s all about the groove of the music and the journey that it takes me on.
What’s some of your favorite music?
The very first album I listened to was Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow, and it’s just really great. The song “White Rabbit” inspired the Alice in Wonderland television installation in my show. The song kinda goes through Alice’s journey, and it’s just really cool.
Deep Purple is also one of my favorites. Led Zeppelin and them draw a lot of influence from Robert Johnson and the Delta blues, but they kick it up a notch with that heavy metal sound. Other than that: Al Green, The O’Jays’ Back Stabbers, Jimi Hendrix—he’s a big inspiration.
I really love Bad Brains. Before I heard them, my lines connected in a different way, and when I started listening to punk a little more, Bad Brains just made me go crazy on a large scale. My work got bigger as a result of punk. I went out and bought a six yard canvas, posted up, and turned on the music.
There’s also a lot of rappers now—like A$AP Rocky has the song “L$D,” and Flatbush Zombies—inspired by psychedelics. I love that it’s creating a whole different style of hip hop. It has a different groove to it that I love, because I generally love a bunch of old shit. Stuff from the 60s and 70s, that sort of thing.
What’s up with the smiley faces painted on record sleeves?
I was looking at old LSD tabs with that classic art on it, like spaceships or smiley faces. I also thought about the Temptations album Psychedelic Shack. It’s so groovy. I love their voices, the a cappella. There’s this one song that I played called “Smiling Faces Sometimes” [Editor’s note: this song appeared on the 1971 album Sky’s the Limit] and the idea is that sometimes a smile doesn’t tell the truth. So I went crazy with the smileys. There’s different ways you can interpret it.
What role do psychedelic drugs play in your art?
I don’t actually make art while I’m on psychedelics. But I hear musical riffs in my head all the time. And that journey while you’re on LSD…I like to sit back and listen to music, generally, and drink some wine and listen to a whole album, or two, or three. And when a particular riff or something plays over and over in my head, [my art] is how I get it out of my head. And psychedelics help me interpret the music differently.
How do you translate the music into art?
So I love using charcoal, because unlike a paintbrush that you have to pause and re-dip, drawing with charcoal just doesn’t end. It’s like a guitar pick, you know? That’s how I see it in my medium: it’s my guitar pick, and I’m just going.
Large, broad strokes are like a long guitar riff, specifically like a Deep Purple thing. [Jagged marks] are movements I use a lot, and that’s from the Bad Brains, like diga diga duh nuh. It kind of moves with the music. [And then short lines] I’m just going ch ch to the music, almost like percussion.
I usually work with my canvases on the ground. I like to circle around it, and I love that, because you’re in full control. Sometimes with a large canvas, if it’s on the wall, my arm can get tired. But I don’t wanna stop. On the ground, I can have that flow.
Do you make your paintings all in one sitting?
Early on, I never wanted to stop. I’d just want to keep going, and sometimes it’s me knowing when to stop. A large piece can take a day or two generally.
Whoa, that’s pretty fast.
I just go. I’m usually in [the studio] from like 12 PM one day till 10 AM the next day. Sometimes I just sit and stare for a few songs. Put on some heavy metal, and then go back and attack it. If it’s a slow song, I move slow with it. That kind of thing.
What do you listen to when you’re making art?
Whatever I’m feeling at the time. Maybe I’ll do jazz mixed with heavy metal or some reggae. And punk is always so different from the rest, because it’s like a repeat of the same thing. I want to make the same marks over and over. I mixed up lots of different genres [for this show]. I like to show how different music creates a different type of flow. The color blocks [in my paintings] show a mix of different genres.
So how does sound factor into your show?
I wanted to do this thing with Alice in Wonderland, and the title of the show is This Way to That Way, which is a reference to the road where she meets the Cheshire Cat. I wanted to have the ticking of a clock, riffs from Pink Floyd, lines from the animated movie. And Bryan [Ellingson] and I like a lot of the same music, so we wanted to make it a trip for people as they’re coming into the gallery.
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