John Connell: Cheap Secrets of the East
Amidst the twilight of culture, as the light of humanity seems so set to wane, Connell appears as a Deleuzian shaman in the sense that he is inside (the artworld, the exhibition space) and largely outside (in nature, in isolation) at the same time.
Jon Carver, Art Papers, July/August 2006
John Connell (born 1940, in Atlanta, Georgia; died September 27, 2009, in Mariaville, Maine)
Vacuity, in the sense of emptiness, is the stunningly tangible term that has been used repeatedly with regard to the work of contemporary American artist John Connell, who made his home in Northern New Mexico from the 1970s through the 1990s. In her 1972 Art in America review, Joan Simmons writes, “It’s the plaster, with its combination of vulnerability and fixity, that carries the emotional weight.” Rarely, does a body of work perform this type of metaphysical magic. With tenderness, Connell fuels a strong embrace of literature. Simmons quotes the artist as saying, “All of this stuff requires a little participation, and was manufactured for the more tender meanings, and isn’t meant to terrify.”
Tom Collins, in his 1983 review in THE Magazine, compares Connell’s literary vision with that of other figures past and present: “The visual, psychic atmosphere is all ancient Egyptian death rites — Géricault’s Le Radeau de la Méduse, T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland, the Caribbean and Mediterranean peopled with today’s huddled, drowning masses.” Collins goes on to compare Connell’s work with that of Camus, Beckett, Giacometti, Anselm Kiefer, and Thomas Merton’s Ash Wednesday (“Remember man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.”)
Connell stated, "I painted these rooms that were like drooling little flashes of leaves — a quick stroke. I made paper rooms that you would walk into and they would kind of rustle. That was an attempt at an environment. It wasn't terribly complete … kind of like the shell. Actually, I didn't think of those as 'environments.' I didn’t have that word then."
Connell had a masterful grasp on Taoism, with its maxim “The glass is half full of nothingness.” And a tender horror, the pure path to hope, is messaged through the use of carbon-coated, tar-soaked, and oil-smeared work. The work feels impermanent, and much of it is. Note the preciousness of the materials, the rips and tears (often made during the making). Connell mostly used arrows as brushes on soft Japanese paper or cloth. Other media included pen, pencil, brush, spray paint, iron oxide, ink, oil, tar, acrylic, charcoal. His abstract scrawls, at a distance, appear as pure and deep realism. Again quoting Tom Collins, “If the artist wouldn’t object — it is all about suffering, impermanence, emptiness and the regenerative power of all of the above.”
Northern New Mexico figured prominently in the life of the artist. Connell’s relationships with other New Mexico artists were historically profound. In the early 1980s, Connell shared a studio with Taos legend Bill Gersh. According to accounts by friends of the artists, “There was more shit on the floor than you could imagine, but it wasn’t total Francis Bacon-ish squalor. It was just an accumulation of a lot of stuff.”
According to Brendan Connell, a major artist in his own right, Connell’s influences included Hokusai, Rembrandt, Balzac, Dante, Giacometti and de Kooning. Buddhism is a central theme, and he cited wabi-sabi as his aesthetic. Connell used plaster-of-Paris in the 1980s and later turned to tar, paper and wax for his large figurative sculptures. He also used bronze, cement, wood and chicken wire. His works on paper sometimes include elements of collage. In the early ’80s, he mostly gave up using commercial paints and began making his own out of iron oxide and pigments. In later paintings he used ashes, mud and earth. His work has sometimes incorporated elements of writing and occasionally audiotape.
John Connell attended Brown University, in Providence, Rhode Island (1958–1960), the Art Students League in New York City (1960–1961) and New York University (1962), where he studied Chinese printmaking. His first exhibition was in New York in 1962. Connell’s work is represented in the collections of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York; The Albuquerque Museum, Albuquerque, New Mexico; Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas; Arkansas Art Center, Little Rock, Arkansas; Bates College Museum of Art, Lewiston, Maine; Blanton Museum of Art, Austin, Texas; The Harwood Museum of Art, Taos, New Mexico; The Hess Collection, Napa Valley, California; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Mobile Museum of Art, Mobile, Alabama; New Mexico Museum of Art, Santa Fe, New Mexico; Roswell Museum and Art Center, Roswell, New Mexico; Phoenix Art Museum, Phoenix, Arizona; Scottsdale Center for the Arts, Scottsdale, Arizona; University of Arizona Art Museum, Tucson, Arizona; and University Art Museum, Albuquerque, New Mexico.