by Lou Mancinelli
Ed. Note: Last week’s Local Life section ran a front-page article about Chuck Connelly, a local artist who was acclaimed by the New York art world in the 1980s. He sold more than $1 million worth of his work in that decade, including a purchase by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. But his career then took a nose-dive, which many observers attributed to Connelly’s volcanic temper, alienating many of his former supporters. Here is more of freelance contributor Lou Mancinelli’s interviews with Connelly, who, according to some observers of the New York art scene, has been his own worst enemy.
I wanted to ask Connelly about the possible similarities between his life and those of painters now regarded as masters but who were ignored or overlooked in their own time.
As early as 1863, Cezanne’s submission along with those of Renoir and Monet had been rejected by the leading art institution in Paris. Cezanne, now a celebrated master, exhibited his first solo show three decades later, at age 56. The history of art is replete with such stories, the most famous being that of Vincent Van Gogh, who sold just one painting in his lifetime but whose works now sell for millions of dollars.
Connelly, 59, of East Oak Lane, still paints despite the near-disappearance of the kind of recognition once showered upon him. He has dedicated his life to his art, and his art has been a battle between Chuck Connelly and Chuck Connelly.
The local artist’s paintings are allegorical and expressionist. His canon is a window into the American canon and a glimpse at the American soul. It’s a vision that is at times friendly and at other times manic and angry. Connelly’s home is full of equal cheer and nightmare, color, beauty and empty paint tubes. In his work you may even hear beautiful songs, sometime haunting.
At times during our conversations, the subject turned to the idea of art the way an author might talk about the power of language and the role of a writer. Connelly was clearly concerned with the position of the artist in society and with what constitutes good art. His daily work is painting with insight and talent pure as a waterfall.
“Don’t you think good art, good anything, you gotta be doin’ it all the time?” Connelly asked rhetorically. “You develop a craftsmanship. You develop a thing that holds it together. And then you get so good at it that it’s second nature. Then if you do get some great idea, it just flows in there … But you’re not struggling … That’s a lotta crap. You’re making ‘chotchkies,’ and all of a sudden you sculpt the Pieta by accident.”
Who can say what caused interest in Connelly’s work to fade or what his destiny as a painter is? He was thrown from his careering ship in its height of pride. With his easel and brush, he has built his own ship and set sail again in East Oak Lane. He has experienced his taste of disaster and is still alive.
It’s as if Connelly is painting for himself and for history now. But his work is as relevant and bursting with expression as the work he created as a young man.
Of course, the work of great artists, writers and composers is often ahead of its time. Living away from the artistic mainstream may even be an advantage since one is free to work of his/her own accord and to follow the link of former masters who seem to speak from their canvases.
“Art is almost like a recording of an exact moment of truth,” Connelly said. “The purer you are to letting it flow and the less involvement you actually have in it, the better you’re gonna be. You’re channeling. Maybe all an artist does is prepare little channels to channel, like little road signs. And that’s what technique and craftsmanship are, those things that help with the channeling of the unknown.”
Art is a window through which we see our own reflection. “It’s faith at this point,” he said about why he continues his work. “It’s not belief … I already jumped off the cliff. I just hope I don’t land on a rock on the way down … There’s no turning back … Making art is like jumping. You don’t always wanna jump because it’s a series of pain afterwards.”
If Connelly had not leapt, we would not have his body of work to add to the American story, like a collection of great songs. But an artist jumps because what he sees is either too horrifying, thrilling or beautiful to just sit still. And so he paints.
So it has been the drama of Connelly’s life, his character, that combined with the cultivation of his talent has made him a master artist. He is a treasure hidden away from the artistic decision-makers like old gold. His work shows us what we look like.
For more information, visit www.chuckconnelly.net.