A retrospective of Chuck Connelly's paintings is small but potent | Community Profile | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

A retrospective of Chuck Connelly's paintings is small but potent

The paintings are raw, intense, violent, angry, tender, ironic, intimate, passionate and comic

In today's overheated and unregulated art market, it seems like artists are more like brands than cultural producers. Art seems more than ever to be a consumer good like any other. And just like every other commodity, marketing is essential to making a sale.

This must be incredibly frustrating for many artists, but in reality it has always been this way. Patrons, dealers and institutions promote the lucky ones while many others, often of equal talent, are marginalized or under-recognized. While some artists are purposefully anti-establishment or experimental, most artists just want to be acknowledged, if not paid, for the work they are doing.

Chuck Connelly's Ascending Man
Image courtesy of the artist
In flight: Chuck Connelly's "Ascending Man" (1986)

Such seems to be the case with Chuck Connelly, who in an Emmy Award-winning documentary about him called The Art of Failure: Chuck Connelly Not For Sale, exclaims in one of his rants: "I don't even want you to buy it, I just want you to pay attention. That'll keep me alive. Just look! I can FEEL when you look." And you want to look because both Connelly and his work are a beautiful, unfathomable, intense and compelling mess.

As part of the Pittsburgh Biennial, Chuck Connelly: My America is a small painting exhibition curated by Jessica Beck at The Andy Warhol Museum. Very little of Connelly's backstory is revealed in this exhibition, which is really a shame. Connelly's paintings are actually enriched by his biography. And in this, the age of over-sharing, what better place to tell it than at The Warhol?

If you haven't seen the exhibition yet, do yourself a favor and visit Connelly's website, where there are reproductions of his paintings and links to clips from the documentary. You might also want to search online for interviews in which, for example, he talks about his music, a secret passion, which he wants to keep pure. And for sure you will want to check out an Internet TV show called Stream of Thought, where you can watch him paint.

An artist's background information is not always essential, but Connelly puts so much of himself — physically, psychically and emotionally — into his work that looking at some of his paintings is like peeking into his cantankerous soul. The paintings are raw, intense, violent, angry, tender, ironic, intimate, passionate and comic. Take "Edge of Heaven," a brooding vision of a village beset by massive, swirling Van Gogh clouds that are at once ominous and benevolent. It's as if Connelly, who was born in Pittsburgh in 1955, understands deeply that we are, each of us, always at the precipice between life and death, triumph and disaster.

In the 1980s, Connelly was among the rising stars of neo-expressionism that included Julian Schnabel and Jean-Michel Basquiat. In a videotaped conversation with the curator, Connelly explains that he felt like in New York he had arrived in the right place at the right time. He had opportunities early on but, whether by design or not, he managed to alienate and piss off many of his supporters. According to one dealer in the documentary, Connelly told the naked truth and disregarded the consequences. As a result, he has struggled on the periphery for much of his career. But who can blame him? The art world, like many businesses, can be unsavory, and Connelly's ornery candor is truly refreshing.

As a painter committed to his personal vision and to his craft, Connelly is well versed in art history and he uses it to great advantage. You'll find references both in subject and style to any number of artists and movements, including Peter Paul Rubens, Chaim Soutine, Balthus, James Ensor, Jasper Johns, Fauvism, German expressionism, surrealism, pop, street art and the symbolists, all jumbled together.

Billed as Connelly's first solo museum show, this exhibition tries to survey the whole of his career over the past 40 years. It's a noble effort, but it doesn't really work in such a small space. His paintings seem to be all of one "structural" whole, as one critic put it, but some of them just need more room. "Ascending Man" and "St. George and the Dragon" are large, dramatic and bold in subject matter and brush stroke. They command the room and overshadow nearby work like "My America" and "Couple in Bed."

All in all, the exhibition is an important one in that it recognizes an artist who has stayed true to himself and to his medium. Connelly has persevered, and in the end he has achieved his ultimate goal: to make us not just look, but to see.

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Kaibur Coffee

By Mars Johnson