Before writing this review on Chuck Connelly’s Neo-Expressionist paintings at the Andy Warhol Museum, I thought it was a unusual choice to exhibit his work in the context of Warhol’s more art-world populist paintings. The only thing I can see that they have in common is their shared use of pop culture imagery, and that they are both Pittsburgh natives. Warhol’s cooler, more removed and mechanical style is universally accepted in the art world. On the flip side, Connelly’s work is intimate, personal and sincere. It is safe to say that this type of sincerely in painting has fallen out of favor.
So why chose Connelly? Why now? I can only assume the curators at the Warhol, Nicholas Chambers and Jessica Beck wanted to change course, just a little bit. Connelly’s story is an interesting one and his work, unlike Warhol’s, is more personal. You can look at his paintings and their direct and aggressive manner tells you what they are about. Connelly’s paintings are a breath of fresh air, despite the typical assumptions that painting like his must lie dormant in an ahistorical no-man’s land.
Connelly emerged as a Neo-Expressionist in the late 1970s, sharing themes of mythic imagery with his American contemporaries like Julian Schnabel, David Salle and Eric Fichl. However, as his career progressed his paintings would switch back and forth between the fantastic and an expressive realism that has more in common with the German Expressionists (1905 – 1935). Connelly does not position himself as a romantic or realist in any exclusive way. Rather he creates paintings through the use of historical tropes in order to ground the needs of each piece.
Connelly’s paintings are excessive in their painterly execution and scale, similar to those of the German Expressionists. The paint is thick and generous, and at times reminds me of the work the painter Lovis Corinth (1858 – 1925). Like the German Expressionists and Corinth, Connelly’s Ascending Man greatly exaggerates classical proportions, color/tone, painting and drawing relationships. The painting is massive, measuring 108 x 90 inches, and depicts a receding, curved and tilted rural landscape invaded by the starry night sky. I think Connelly is expressing the horror of how reality for him (and perhaps the rest of humanity) is not grounded in a world that we can know. As a result we, and that tiny figure in the middle of Connelly’s painting, are spinning out of control into inevitable demise. The painting feels pessimistic, and also darkly ironic in that we are not ‘ascending’ towards the heavens but rather backwards towards the horrific indifference of the universe and the unknown. The small, insignificant figure hovers between two possibilities: survival or extinction.
Painted in 2009, Bran-Flakes is a caricature of the still-life genre. The drawing and color relationships are crude, reflecting Connolly’s sentiments about Modern life. In this case Bran–Flakes should be called ‘Bland–Flakes’. Amazingly, so called “old media” can still effectively critique to the impersonal conditions put forth by global capitalism. The hammer in the foreground sits there ominously, driving Connelly’s point home: this naturalized ideology that we’re eating is not good for us.
The painting Art Factory works well within the scope and mood that Connelly’s work sets for the show. The painterly cartoon attributes within Art Factory allow the painter to exaggerate the conditions of art production. There is a sinister quality about the work – it feels tortured, sad, and angry. The house (or factory) looms uncomfortably forward towards the spectator. A single red car is parked in the sprawling empty parking lot. A large fire crackles in one the windows of the house and smoke bellows from two smoke stacks. One goofy, barbershop black and white striped pole sits perched on the left side of the house. Connelly’s painting seems to be suggesting that things are not well in the art world. The quirky character of these brooding paintings at times diffuse the painful fact that, like every other profession, art making is caught in the tight grip of global capitalism. The painting seems to be asking, where does one find poetry in a world that is so bent on human exploitation in the name of profit interests?
Connelly’s work presents obvious challenges because of its often chauvinistic and homophobic references. Included in the exhibition is a painting of Santa Claus, whose face is twisted up, perhaps from drinking too much eggnog. It seems the sentiments of the Christmas holiday don’t suit Connelly. Scrawled on the face of the portrait in stylized graffiti-like text is the word Ho – Mo. Painted in 1979, This kind of word play would gain very little support in today’s art world, but in recognizing the historical moment that Connelly worked in, one can appreciate the gutsy decision on the part of both curators to include such a painting in this solo exhibition.
There are many artists in the history of art that share Connelly’s thorny issues. Most of them are male and it would be futile to name them all But even though his paintings are troubling, it’s long over due to come into contact with work like his. His paintings get their point across in their muscular way. Connelly moves paint like a man possessed – the formal and technical qualities of the paintings are impressive as is the exhibition itself and, like all paintings of Connelly’s, need to be seen in person.
Todd Keyser is a painter and curator. Formally, the assistant director of Gross McCleaf Gallery in Philadelphia, he recently relocated to Pittsburgh. Other reviews can be found on Title-Magazine and Bmore Art blogs. Keyser’s work was recently exhibited in a group show at SPACE, organized by Kristen Letts Kovak in the downtown Cultural District.