An American Treasure in the Making
The Warhol’s survey of Pittsburgh-born Chuck Connelly gives the notorious painter his due.
Forty years into his career, artist Chuck Connelly long ago passed through his Warholian 15 minutes. He’s continued his creative trajectory, though, through several distinctive styles and thousands of completed artworks.
Chuck Connelly, Slag, 2013, Courtesy of the artist
Connelly was heralded in the 1980s New York art scene, but quickly alienated the players, even his allies, with a string of bitter and often public denunciations of artists, dealers, and gallery owners. Unable to maintain professional relationships, he decamped to Philadelphia in 1999. Today, the man known as much for his self-destructive bent as his art making is back in the spotlight with his first solo show at a museum.
“Disgracing a painting gives it power. And once you’ve done it, you can’t go back. It’s like jumping off a bridge. I want to take control of that energy.”
- CHUCK CONNELLY
Chuck Connelly: My America, a forceful survey of works from 1978 to the present, displays the Pittsburgh-born artist’s lifelong dedication to an old-school medium: paint. And according to the genially grumpy Connelly, the recognition is long overdue.
“I was at the top—for a minute,” says the 59-year-old. My America, The Andy Warhol Museum’s contribution to the citywide Pittsburgh Biennial, is on view through January 5. Though Connelly's paintings were collected widely during the 1990s, the 22 paintings on view at The Warhol—culled from nearly 4,000 created over three decades—are all still owned by the artist. “I’m waiting for the day that I will become an American treasure.”
As the art world moved toward grand-scale installations, seven-figure auction prices, and diamond-encrusted skulls, Connelly never veered from the canvas. He paints every day in his North Philadelphia home, layering thick, swirling strokes that conduct the energy of billowing clouds, smokestacks, human flesh, even melting cheese.
“There is a sense of command in Connelly’s pigments, a sense of isolation, even protectiveness,” art critic Robert Morgan recently wrote in appreciation. “Connelly breaks through the pretention of proprietary codes and manners that guard the way people live their lives. He goes straight to the vanity and conceits.”
In works like Homo (1979), in which Santa Claus is depicted with a sardonic grin and his face painted from the Dutch master Peter Paul Rubens, Connelly’s final brushstrokes are an ironic epigram that steals the authority of the image. The slur, in the spirit of graffiti, is intended to “deface” the work. In Seven (1978), a shaded figure of a comehither nude is overlaid with a stark, scarlet numeral. And in My America (1997), the kaleidoscopic overview of the continent is layered with subversive text such as “sex,” “drugs,” and “fate.”
“Disgracing a painting gives it power,” Connelly says. “And once you’ve done it, you can’t go back. It’s like jumping off a bridge. I want to take control of that energy.”
The oversized grandeur of Ascending Man and St. George and the Dragon, both painted in 1986, suggest Connelly’s mastery of centuries of Western art. “That’s one of his strengths,” says Jessica Beck, assistant curator of art at The Warhol and organizer of the show. “His work relates to visual memory, to the familiar undertones circulating in contemporary life.”
In a recent video interview with Beck, Connelly contends that the artistic movements of the past have fused in the present. “Surrealism, expressionism—it’s all mixed together now,” he observes. “What’s surreal is life as we know it today. Imagine all the TV images that have more import than a tree.” Pizza (2008), Bran-Flakes (2009), and The Idiot Box (2013), which shows a family gathered around a television, all suggest the banality of consumer culture.
Connelly also paints under the direction of an alter ego, Fred Scaboda, who he created during his time as a student at Tyler School of Art at Temple University (look for the canvases signed with a large black dot). These works often riff on imagery culled from magazines and found photographs. In both Soldier and Girl (2009) and Parade (2012), the monochromatic canvases evoke a textured reimagining of a video screen capture.
Scaboda was brought to life, though briefly, in filmmaker Jeff Stimmel’s HBO documentary, The Art of Failure: Chuck Connelly Not For Sale, which tracked the artist over five years. The resulting film won an Emmy for best documentary in 2008. It’s a warts-and-all portrayal in which Connelly rants, sobs, smokes, drinks, paints, and plots an unlikely comeback. He even hires a young actor and has him invite dealers to a fake studio crammed with Connelly's “Scaboda” work, all in an attempt to rekindle interest and sales. But the hoped-for comeback never materializes, and Connelly returns to his aging Victorian home.
“He has a great sense of humor,” Stimmel says of Connelly. “He’s a talented artist. But the art world establishment doesn’t want to deal with him. The stages in his career have distinctive styles. If he changes, he can’t market that. That has affected his career.”
Today, Connelly says he’s always been a fan of Warhol, an early influence he describes as “a cousin of Duchamp.”
“Andy popped it up,” he says, approvingly. “He represents American art. It’s been ruined by kitsch.”
As he surveys his works hanging in The Warhol’s fourth-floor gallery, he explains where they usually reside. Animals in the Street (1994), a warm-hued depiction of a busy sidewalk crowded with creatures in business attire, has adorned his bedroom wall for years. Other canvases are stacked helter-skelter on the third floor of his home, and even line his sunporch. Each work, he says, provides its own inspiration. “I’m constantly relearning or rediscovering what I knew.”
Though the artist seems pleased that The Warhol provides a hometown venue for his first show in nearly a quarter-century (Connelly was born in Pleasant Hills, just south of Pittsburgh), he won’t call it a comeback.
“The deaths that I had to go through to get here,” he muses tiredly, referring to the loss of his friends, parents, and brother. “Who knows. Maybe this is a beginning.”