by Jennifer Katz
There was a time when Chuck Connelly was poised to take on the stodgy New York art world. His early work was met with awe and praise. Paintings such as “The Broken Ark,” “Animals in the Street,” “Santa Ho-Mo” and “Mad Men” impressed gallery owners and art critics.
By the time Jeff Stimmel came to direct his documentary, “The Art of Failure: Chuck Connelly Not For Sale,” in 2008, the East Oak Lane painter was struggling to survive. He hadn’t had a major show since 1990, and his infamous personality had more than taken its toll on the man’s professional and personal life.
“Every time a big opportunity came his way, he made sure he was being right and pointing out wrongs into whatever relationship he had with everyone, telling the naked truth and disregarding the consequences,” one former colleague is quoted as saying in the documentary.
A drunk and irate Connelly screams into the camera in one scene, “I don’t need your fucking art world. I can sell this shit myself.”
While away from the New York gallery circuit, his reputation continued to grow. His paintings were featured in Martin Scorsese’s “New York Stories,” and Nick Nolte portrayed him in a 1999 A&E Biography.
This month Connelly is showing some of his work as part of a show he curated for the Chestnut Hill Gallery, “Out of Order.” The show opened June 4 and will run through June 25 at the gallery, 8117 Germantown Ave.
“They wanted to show me,” Connelly explained. “I didn’t think the venue was right for me, but I thought ‘if I do it with friends, it makes more sense.’”
Connelly put together a slate of artists who each work in a different medium but have a common link, which for this show is tenuous.
Harry Anderson, Connelly’s neighbor, is a former professor who taught at Moore College of Art and the North County Studio Conference. His work incorporates found objects from industrial salvage yards and other mass-produced goods from the ‘30s to ‘50s along with hand-blown glass for his light installations.
“Harry was a mentor to me in the late ‘70s,” Connelly said.
Ted Victoria, whom Connelly met in Mexico, is a New York artist who has shown at the Musee D’Orsay in Paris, the Fortuny Museum in Venice, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Taipei and the International Museum of Photography in Rochester, N.Y. His piece in Chestnut Hill is a light projection of an aquarium with live sea monkeys.
Hal Hirshorn, a painter and photographer from New York, included several “salt prints,” described as 21st century photographs using 19th century materials and methods. British inventor and photography pioneer William Henry Fox Talbot invented the technique in 1841.
Connelly intentionally sought work that was unique in medium but similar in theme.
“I like that they are all different,” he said. “They have light as the theme. I’m the odd man out with painting.”
Joe Borrelli, 57, who owns the Chestnut Hill Gallery with his wife of 24 years, Suzanne Sheeder, was introduced to Connelly through a long-time customer who also lives in East Oak Lane.
“Chuck’s work has so much energy,” Borrelli said. “It’s total truth. He doesn’t paint to sell.”
Borrelli and Sheeder, 50, have owned the gallery for five years. Borrelli was a professional musician for years before going to work at the Hahn Gallery in Chestnut Hill in 2003 before it closed the following year. He had met many artists throughout the years and always dreamed of opening his own gallery. Though the economy has been challenging, Borrelli said the gallery is holding its own. “Art sales are coming back,” he said.
He changes exhibits every six weeks, rotating through a stable of approximately 60 artists, almost half of whom are local. Borrelli said he chooses artists by looking at their careers. “I look at what they’ve done, how much they work on it every day,” he said. “They have to have life in their paintings, evoke emotion.”
For Connelly putting together a group show takes some of the pressure off and disperses the responsibility. “I don’t have to bear all the criticism myself, but I get a little bit of the praise,” he said.
Unexpectedly the show also provided Connelly with an opportunity to honor a good friend who passed away on June 9. Tom Stagerwald died at the age of 65 from inoperable liver cancer. Connelly put a painting of Stagerwald’s in the show (he painted flowers) and dedicated the show to him. “The show didn’t have any particular purpose to it, so that was the most special thing,” Connelly said of being able to include Stagerwald in the exhibit.
After an opening reception over the weekend, Connelly said he realized the importance of having his work seen in a neighborhood gallery. “It’s a new trend,” he said. “People have never seen it before. They are not blasé about it.”
Sheeder said she believes the art scene in Chestnut Hill is growing. “It helps that there are new galleries that have opened up here,” she said. “It is starting to feel like a destination for artists.”
“Out of Order” is on display at the Chestnut Hill Gallery & Frame Shoppe, 8117 Germantown Ave., through June 25. For more information, call 215-248-2549 or visit www.chestnuthillgallery.com.