JOHN CONNELL’S SHOW A MIND TO OBEY NATURE coincides with a summer-long exhibition at the Harwood Museum in Taos. According to Brendan Connell, the artist’s son, Connell rarely showed a piece more than once unless it was part of a traveling exhibition, and thus the recently exhibited works are mostly new to the public. This past October at Jamie Hart’s Phil Space, Connell’s drawings hung alongside the work of lifelong friend and collaborator Eugene Newmann. A book by local powerhouse Radius Books that was started during the artist’s life was recently finished by his son and is going into print any day now. It’s an exciting year to contemplate the legacy of the artist—who passed away in 2009—and who was so stoically integral to New Mexico’s visual landscape.
Forty years ago, Connell was a key member of a Santa Fe group of abstractionists that included Newmann, Sam Scott, Frank Ettenberg, and Reg Loving. New Mexico has risen to the occasion of commemorating and disseminating the work of this great painter and sculptor. Connell attended Brown University in the late fifties and emerged from New York City’s Art Students League in 1961, at the end of its Modernist legacy. According to Connell’s son, the artist came to New Mexico, like many others, to escape a mainstream adherence to any particular “school.” Since then, his work has been collected by New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, among others.
In addition to Connell’s association with New Mexico’s abstractionists, the artist shares a predilection for wabi-sabi, the Japanese aesthetic that shares a few broad sensibilities with Modernism. Both wabi-sabi and Modernism are strong reactions against the dominant, established atmospheres of their time. Both eschew any decoration that is not integral to the artwork’s structure while also being generally abstract, nonrepresentational ideals of beauty. That being said, Connell represents the figure often, and there are many in this show. These portraits are less about decorating a visage than about capturing a moment or an ephemeral ideal. His drawings, sculptures, and paintings reside somewhere between American abstraction and Eastern rusticity. According to Leonard Koren, who started WET magazine, the closest American translation of wabi-sabi is “rustic,” defined partly as “simple, artless, or unsophisticated… with surfaces rough or irregular.” Although Connell escaped overt labeling, his embrace of Buddhist ideals deeply pervades his art practice and offers frankly raw and perhaps imperfect objects for contemplation.
Wabi-sabi’s emphasis on nature and its transience makes the title, A Mind to Obey Nature, seem like a nonthreatening witticism on Connell’s subject and materials. His use of iron oxide makes abstract surfaces like Again Big Tree and Flare-up Go Inside Now appear topographical, volcanic, and even brittle—ready to break or erupt. Its earthy texture of ocher, burnt reds, and browns evokes Anselm Kiefer canvases, and Connell likewise uses earth amid the powdered oxide and pigments on paper. In smaller drawings, like Buddha and Man with Staff, Connell’s deft hand scribbles skeletal bodies sitting crosslegged or standing with a staff amassed from black lines that share similarities to Newmann’s figurative scrawls. At times, it’s absolutely clear that Newmann and Connell were in dialogue over the brevity of the body. Four larger works at just over thirteen feet are feats of gesture drawing. Fighting Man I and II face each other in crippled recoils of black spray paint, oil stick, and charcoal, looking more like defenseless effigies than aggressive enemies. Past the thick black lines of Taoist I and II are well-postured solemn men turning away from us. There is something totemic about these four figures requiring aerial observation.
Connell’s sculptures recall Giacometti’s bronze figures with their rough and pinched surfaces. Sleeping Man (1987) is a life-size bronze cast from ephemera, including crushed paper and wood. The figure, curled on its side on the gallery floor, could be dying or sleeping. Its calves and forearms, built originally from wooden planks, suggest discarded building material and thus some sort of recycling or repurposing of the body, its physical mass inciting a confused empathy for something that’s in passing.
Raven IV (maquette) also looks like crumpled paper. Its matte exterior, though entirely bronze, could easily be clotting debris and tar that weighs down the wings of this lopsided crowing bird. Out of the four small animal sculptures in the show, Raven IV (maquette) presents a model of imperfect origami— as if Connell wanted to push the perfection of paper folding to another extreme that proposes something messy, unkempt, unpredictable, but equally as beautiful.