PRINT September 1990


IN THE ’60s, a form of “primitivism”—something we might call a textural, materialist approach to artmaking—began to suffuse the work of feminist and African-, Latin-, Native-, and at times Asian-American artists. Offering an alternative to Euro-American-Judeo-Christian patriarchal structures, it celebrated the female earth deities they supplanted, and the animistic understanding of materials seen in the traditional arts of non-European cultures. But then the post-Modernists decided that ethnicity was chic, however and wherever you could find it. And in the ’80s, the stylistic pretension of “primitivism” became an explosion of “feathers and flames, carts and carriages, altars and houses,”1 compromising a strategy that had earlier come to imply a “belief in the superiority of primitive life”2 and in some sort of return to nature, or at least to a more “natural” way of living. Soon, primitivism could no longer offer this kind of existential and spiritual catharsis. Instead, it was a ready-made syntax to indicate some “sincere” “authenticity” on the part of the practitioner. Galleries grew crowded with exogenous contenders, and, as is usual in the art establishment, these appropriated versions were embraced more readily than their models. And in the co-option of the “look” of animistic art forms, the protocol and the discipline of their traditions were often ignored or underestimated.

Given this pervasive ethnic slumming, the work of the sculptor Clyde Connell has inevitably received stereotypical interpretations, which in their turn have been codified by critical habit. While Africa and Native America do provide a reference for Connell’s art, her work emerges from an authentic place in her own psyche: her childhood memories and her attraction to the landscape of Louisiana, where she was born, in 1901. (Connell still lives in the state, on Lake Bistineau.) A few years ago a well-known northeastern critic lapsed into a convenient stereotype of culture below the Mason-Dixon line when he somewhat condescendingly suggested that the “ease of living (real Southern comfort)” there leads to a “complacency which can potentially remove that necessary edge that often imbues an artist’s work with substance.” But the critic also had the grace to note that isolation from the mainstream can provide the “freedom to pursue an individual ideology,” resulting in a “more singular and . . . stronger visual statement.”3 Connell has hardly been “complacent” in her work, and her style has evolved from the mainstream in a most singular way. Every story of an artistic career has a critical moment when commitment, vision, and talent come together. For Connell that moment was the 1950s, when, as a socially engaged member of the Presbyterian Church, she was in the midst of the civil rights movement in the South, and started coming regularly to New York to meet with colleagues at the National Council of the Churches of Christ. Her primary purpose in the city was not to look at art. As Charlotte Moser has observed, however, Connell’s artistic concerns also led her to galleries and museums, where she “witnessed . . . the start of a new era in American art: the birth of abstract expressionism.”4 Connell was in her 50s at the time. Art had always been a part of her life, but her interest, though energetic and consistent, had lacked a specific focus. From then on, however, she thrived on the challenge of finding the time and place to work, pushing her artistic expression farther and truer until, in the 1970s, she found her own way.

This description of Connell’s development, which could fit a number of artists working outside New York, begs the question of regionalism, and, more specifically, of a Southern style in art. Jane Kessler has observed that although Southern literature is widely thought to have a consistent character of its own, the history of visual art in the South is ill defined.5 Crafts and so-called “folk” and “visionary” art may have an established place in the general picture of the South’s cultural identity (certain anecdotal and material traits are said to make these genres “Southern”), but painting and sculpture are more difficult to pigeonhole. Actually, Southern art has a strong independent character, but the best usually done to define it in the mainstream press and exhibition system is an account of “varied, primal, sensuous” landscape painting infused with “hot, fiery” Southern light.6 One might be able to discern a Southern sensibility more clearly in situ and this kind of rubric, of course, could be interjected and disseminated in the mainstream. The art world is perhaps more accustomed to seeing the process work in the other direction—from “center” to “margin”—but given the mobility of artists in this country, and the fact that “regional” art scenes are much stronger these days than in the past, the exchange is certainly mutual. In the new situation, the so-called “mainstream” statement will necessarily be a composite of the input of many so-called “regional” artists.

Connell risks being viewed as part of the Southern company of “folk” or “self-taught” artists, especially given her use of such natural materials as the Louisiana soil. The age at which she attained artistic maturity also encourages a folksy, benign image. But caveat emptor: this woman is acutely aware of the international art scene. Whatever Southern anecdotes we might find in, for example, her paintings of the 1950s, these works were the basis for an evolution into abstraction, with guideposts in such artists as Hans Hoffman and Clyfford Still,7 in the same decade. And by the mid 1960s these abstract compositions had become more precisely articulated geometric works relating Minimalism and Pop art to a mythic symbology inspired by ancient cultures. The “Sunpath” paintings, 1966–68, which feature “a decorative . . . stylization of a round sun sitting atop the wavey lines of its reflection on Lake Bistineau,” refer “to the spirit of an earlier target by Jasper Johns.”8 These works also mark the beginnings of Connell’s interest in sculpture: she cut “geometric shapes from . . . metal or heavy paper,” painted them “flat bright colors,” and applied to them collage elements such as sand, glass, grass, dirt and other found objects.9 All this coalesced in the 1970s with the three-dimensional sacred places and altars known as the “Posts” and “Habitats,” 1974–81 and 1977–85 respectively.

An African-American woman called Susan took care of Connell when she was a child, in the first decade of the century. The story of Susan’s effect on Connell’s creativity has been told many times: “Stopping for gas one day, she was ‘as usual’ thinking about art when, out of the blue, the . . . sounds once made by . . . Susan, came to mind. Connell immediately recognized in the sounds the elements she wanted for her art. ‘They were deep guttural sounds, containing everything I’d been feeling. These sounds contained a certain quality—they were deep, sincere, honest, and right. Something in those sounds was what I wanted to paint. I associated them with living and being.’”10 The results of this ambition were the large-scale drawings known as “Swamp Songs,”1976–88. Each composed of several planar arenas for freely drawn linear interludes in space, these works have been correlated by critics with the Abstract Expressionist “pictographs” of the 1940s, as well as with the automatic gestures of the Surrealists.11 As such, Connell may be said to have replayed the drama of the mythic and totemic imagery that had infected the New York art world some 25 years earlier, when artists used pictographs as “self-consciously evocative images [embracing] primitive and mythological symbols and anatomical fragments.”12 Such pictographs reflect a desire to reclaim the roots of civilization, to revive the sense of wonder and awe that humans first experienced through nature and expressed through religion.

Connell is clearly attuned to the “inner speech” that some believe exists within our own, a speech that precedes vocal or “exterior” speech. “It is through inner speech that the child develops his [or her] own concepts and meanings . . . achieves his [or her] own identity ...constructs his [or her] own world.”13 Neurologist Oliver Sacks is speaking here of the deaf, but the analogy carries over to Connell’s works, which comparably leave us at a point of stymied communication until we gradually comprehend their text(ure). It is an indication of our almost neurotic attachment to our Western legacy of literacy that ideographs and hieroglyphics are usually realized only in the two-dimensional universe of script. As Sacks points out, however, “spoken and signed forms of a given language may develop and coexist as parallel evolutionary streams,”14 and Connell’s signs define their cohesive grammar in space. Her sculptures are like some nonverbal language existing in location, landscape, and movement. The viewer projects an aural translation of their extensions, regressions, and ascensions, shifting their physical trajectories into ideational pathways, into thought. This is no mere pantomime, nor a system like musical or dance notation, which anticipates transmission into performance. It is a “spatial syntax”15 that reveals its potential instantaneously with the viewer’s perception of it.

The sculptures’ pictographic gestures and signs clarify the connection between Connell’s works on paper and her three-dimensional structures. “I’m just a mud-dauber,” is how she describes her technique, which has remained consistent for the last twenty years: newspaper and glue are applied laboriously over a stick frame, the printed surface first blurring into the gray mush of the papier-mâché mixture, then chromatically enriched with earth and the rust hues of appliquéd metal objects.16 The “unheroic” material of these works reflects a goal Connell shares with others among the women artists who emerged in the ’60s and ’70s: the favoring of the organic over the rectilinear. Connell has acknowledged the influence of Eva Hesse and Judy Chicago on her work," which also evokes earth-goddess and consequent female-power connotations. Some pieces suggest altarlike habitats, others intimate shrines, votive offerings to the earth that seem spontaneously assembled from sticks and stones right in nature—in and among and of the trees, leaves, and grasses.

Connell may deny self-consciously feminist intentions, but when one viewer pointed out that her “Bound People” series, 1986–87, were female figures, she responded, “Perhaps they ended up as women because I’m a woman or because so many women today live on their own and have such a struggle.” She also cites terrorism, the conflicts in South America, pollution, the threat of nuclear war, “the seemingly endless racial problem,” the economy, and the spread of AIDS, as signs that “people are feeling increasingly bound by situations over which they have little or no control.”18 Other works carry this general political content a step farther. Numbered and Filed, No. 1, 1984, invokes the lattice structure and elevated ledges of the “Habitats,” but Connell adds hanging ladderlike forms inlaid with stone fragments that resemble figures, forcing an association with the missing persons trapped in our malinger-ing bureaucracies. In Numbered and Filed, No. 2, 1984, the figures have become doll-like personages in a tightly defined cubicle, a severely totalitarian solution to accommodating people, and a more explicit narrative than Connell employs in the ideographs of, for example, the “Swamp Songs.”

While Connell is obviously aware of art history, she is increasingly propelled by personal and psychological forces not usually admitted into its account. One is struck, for example, by the recurrence in her work of stilt structures that invoke the outgrowing roots of the cedar trees in Lake Bistineau and all the ancient swamps of the South. One also sees them, obviously, as the real tools of Louisianians adapting to the swamps. That the silence and mood of these watery environs reverberate through Connell’s sculptures is unsurprising, for the Louisiana landscape is ever present through the windows of her house and studio, which offer an uninterrupted view onto Lake Bistineau. Reaching into a part of the Southern psyche that lives in denial, Connell also addresses boldly the inextricable psychological, physical, but rarely social intermingling of black and white life on institutionalized, de facto, and customary bases in the region.19 White Southerners, of course, have fostered a view of the South that valorizes a white, aristocratic, landed patriarchy, but there has always been more to the story. Poor whites, women, and blacks alike have largely been denied a role in the formation of Southern society. Connell, a woman of Scotch-Irish descent, effects a pertinent reclamation of her place in that society, and also champions a recognition of its past sins. Her reaffirmation of Susan’s childhood influence, and her engagement with the raw, raucous, capricious Louisiana terrain, have placed her at the vanguard of those elucidating the complexity of a true Southern identity in art while at the same time confronting the rigors of contemporary criticism. Her example will also be a key in resuscitating the validity of the primitivist stance, since she has successfully relocated its motivation in an awed respect for cultures still intimately aware of the primordial sensibilities of the human.

Lowery Stokes Sims is associate curator of 20th-century art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

I wish to thank Judy Cotton for introducing me to the work of Oliver Sacks.


1. Thomas Messer, Raices Antiguas/Visiones Neuvas; Ancient Roots/New Visions, Washington, D.C.: Fondo del Sol, 1977, P. 7.

2. William Rubin, ed., “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern, 2 vols., New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1984, 1:2. Rubin is quoting a 1934 edition of Webster’s dictionary.

3. Donald Kuspit, as paraphrased in Jane Kessler, “Southern Comfort/Discomfort,” in Geno Rodriguez, ed., Southern Exposure: Not a Regional Exhibition, New York: The Alternative Museum, 1985, p. 8.

4. Charlotte Moser, Clyde Connell: The Art and Life of a Louisiana Woman, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1988, p. 25. This is the first and most complete account to date of Connell’s art and life.

5. Kessler, p. 7.

6. Ibid.

7. See Moser, p. 29.

8. Ibid., p. 32.

9. Ibid., p. 33.

10. Connell, quoted in ibid., p. 29. Connell also related this incident to the author in May 1987.

11. See ibid., p. 35.

12. Judith E. Tolnick, “The Painting—a Background,” in Kermit Champa, ed., Flying Tigers: Painting and Sculpture in New York, 1939–46, Providence: Bell Gallery, Brown University, 1985, p. 14.

13. Oliver Sacks, Seeing Voices: A Journey Into the World of the Deaf, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1989, p. 73.

14. Ibid., p. 87.

15. Ibid., p. 76.

16. See Moser, pp. 37–38.

17. Ibid., pp. 41 and 51.

18. Connell, quoted in David Connelly, “Clyde Connell’s Bound People,” Louisiana Life, Metairie, La., May/June 1987, p. 54.

19. For a description of these structures see John Dollard, Caste and Class in a Southern Town, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1937.