Reflecting Poole

Sideshow spotlights O. Gail Poole’s multifaceted exploration of “absurdism and human folly.”

Reflecting Poole
"Dealing with AI" by O. Gail Poole

O. Gail Poole’s Sideshow

Jan. 24-May 10

Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art
University of Oklahoma
555 Elm Ave., Norman

Nicole Poole doesn’t remember her father ever taking her to the circus, but she said he “didn’t need to.”

“Every time I walked into the studio was another bearded lady or another freak or another something,” Poole said.

Many of these “somethings” painted by her father, Oklahoma artist O. Gail Poole, are on display in Sideshow Jan. 24-May 10 at Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art at University of Oklahoma, 555 Elm Ave., in Norman. Nicole Poole, who will make a presentation at the museum 6:30 p.m. Feb. 20, said the exhibition showcases her father’s studies of “absurdism and human folly.”

“In the late ’90s, Dad was really exploring his imagination, with regard to masks and magical realism, puppets, religious icons, political icons,” Nicole Poole said. “But at the same time, he was still doing academic nudes and traditional still lifes and landscapes. He was driven to create, and some periods were more fertile than others. … He would get fascinated by things, sure, but I think the only real theme with Dad’s work was with searching. He was always trying to better himself and always trying to find some different side of himself or humanity to express.”

Reflecting Poole
“The Jury” by O. Gail Poole

Kaylee Kain, director of communication at the museum, said O. Gail Poole “dabbled in just about every form and was proficient with all of them,” but Sideshow features works from his underappreciated expressionist and abstract period.

“These were the ones that we thought hadn’t been given their due just yet,” Kain said. “All together, it’s a very interesting exhibition due to the disturbed and the unsettling nature of these types of sideshows. … These are maybe the ones people haven’t seen the most but should have a great deal of spotlight on them now.”

Kain said the works in Sideshow will be displayed in a way that suits their unusual themes.

“Once you start peeling back the
layers of what Oklahoma wants
you to see, it’s pretty fabulous.”
—Nicole Poole

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“I don’t want to give too much away because I really want people to come and explore this for themselves,” Kain said, “but we’re really playing up the sideshow and/or carnival aspect, the circus side of this exhibition, so there will be different colored lighting than we usually would use and draping that we’re going to use to really highlight some of the more disturbed pieces. I think they’ll contrast and complement each other nicely.”

If you feel lost or confused while looking at O. Gail Poole’s artwork, Nicole Poole suggests you embrace it.

Reflecting Poole
"Female Icon" by O. Gail Poole

“Just entertain uncertainty,” Nicole Poole said. “Think for yourself. Imagine what he could have meant and what does it mean to you, because I can make up some bullshit all you like about, ‘This means this and this means that,’ but that’s doing a disservice to both of us if I do that.”

Nicole Poole compared the process of selecting works from the vast and varied oeuvre she inherited when her father died in 2013 to “alchemy.” She keeps a detailed searchable database of the works she has stored in climate-controlled storage spaces in Norman and on Film Row, but when asked how many paintings there are, she declined to give an official number.

Reflecting Poole
"Mental Dilemma/No Joke" by O. Gail Poole

“That’s like asking a rancher how many head of cattle he’s got,” Nicole Poole said. “It’s big. It’s really big. It’s unwieldy big. I’m not comfortable giving away the actual number, but I have a few acres of art. … It’s crazy. There’s no model for what I’ve got. Trust me; I’ve done every Google search. Now there’s like, ‘Hey, if you’ve inherited an artist’s estate, let us handle it for you.’ None of that shit existed when dad died in 2013, and I didn’t want to have a bonfire. I didn’t want to just go to an auction house. It’s too damned important, especially now, as we’re starting to really celebrate our artists. We’re starting to get a sense of our identity and honor who we are. Dad’s voice is an important part of that. I’m just waiting for everybody else to get in line.”

Defying categorization

The hard-to-classify nature of her father’s work — which includes impressionism, abstraction, surrealism and more traditional portraits and landscapes — made it more difficult to sell when he was alive.

“There was none of this relativity bullshit in Oklahoma back in the days before social media,”” Nicole Poole said. “You were either a traditional painter who painted cowboys and Natives and landscape and pretty things or you were out there, and Dad straddled those things pretty well. Now, thankfully, we are more accepting of plurality artistically, and that’s why I think right now is the perfect time for dad to come back.”

Reflecting Poole
"Shot From a Cannon" by O. Gail Poole

O. Gail Poole once worked as a commercial artist and cofounded the advertising firm Poole-Hobbes, Inc., but after he left the industry, he intentionally resisted making his work more marketable.

“My dad was never going to be the guy who did something that you could hang over your couch,” Nicole Poole said. “He didn’t paint for the market; he painted for himself. Yeah, and there’s a deep, deep mine to dig down into to discover our voices as a society in his work. … There is something incredibly important in that exploration, because if an artist is only creating for a market, then we don’t actually get a good view of who we are as a society. If an artist is supposed to be a mirror of wherever society is but every artist is just painting what’s going to sell it, it’s a screwed-up, shallow feedback loop.”

Art that challenges expectations and refuses easy categorization is especially important as a reflection of modern Oklahoma, Nicole Poole said.

“Oklahoma has spent decades trying to be other states, and I feel like we’re just now hitting maturity to where we can own our plurality and diversity and our problematic descriptions,” Nicole Poole said. “Are we the South? Are we the West? Are we the Southwest? Are we the Midwest? Who the hell are we? And the answer is, ‘Yes. We are all of that stuff.’ … Once you start peeling back the layers of what Oklahoma wants you to see, it’s pretty fabulous.”

O. Gail Poole’s art also reflects the many, often contradictory and indefinable facets of the individual.

“Dad had moods, like all of us,” Nicole Poole said. “None of us are the same person in any given damn moment. The more we try to fake that we are, the more repressed and messed up that we end up being. And I think Dad loosened up the boundaries between the different aspects of himself and explored as many of them as he possibly could. That makes us deeply uncomfortable, but his constant search for authenticity, I think, is very relevant to where we are today. None of our masks are working anymore.”

Admission is free. Call 405-325-3272 or visit

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