Clyde Connell

The self-evident character of Clyde Connell’s work, especially the sculptures, tempts us into received categories of response. For example, Adam Simon’s laconic 1984 film on Connell starts from the premise that the “mystery” of nature from which we are historically and technologically alienated is at the center of her art. He, like others, tends to shroud the work in the ground fog of Lake Bistineau, Louisiana, where Connell lives and produces her art, obscuring the objective clarity of the work’s meaning. This notion of mystery is more a function of the mental distance from which we experience any single piece than a manifestation of the work itself.

Connell’s exhibition at Butler Gallery consisted of five sculptures and five works on paper—a modest and select presentation appropriate to the contemplative temperament that informs her art. Although she has consistently identified her art with Abstract Expressionism, this categorization does not in itself explain the work. What seemed immediately clear was the work’s references to both ancient and primitive sources (most conspicuously the austere forms and hieroglyphic texts of pharaonic art) and its explorations of fundamental human experience. We can find in Connell’s works on paper—for example, in Swamp Song I, 1984, and Sound, Signs, Symbols, 1984—resemblances to hieroglyphic constructions and to some of David Smith’s graphisms of the ’50s or to works by Bradley Walker Tomlin.

The substance of Connell’s work lies in its symbolic retrieval and embodiment of primordial phenomena. This relates closely to the Heideggerian concept of building and dwelling as conjunctive acts that define our human being-ness: We build a world in which we dwell; the act of dwelling is inherent in the building. The teleological principle is that of preserving—a preservation of organic matter, of diurnal sites, of articulated quietude, of the earth itself. All of the sculptural pieces in this show demonstrated the deliberate care of Connell’s actions on plain, forthright materials (wood, stone, papier-mâché). Hearth Place, 1981, in particular, embodies an archetypal moment of abiding, nurturing sentiment in the small cedar log fixed at the gravitational center of the sculpture’s hearthlike (or womblike) interior space.

With the exception of Hearth Place, the predominant form in the sculptures is the ladder, which signifies a visual task the viewer must perform in order to reach the work’s interior. In the case of Lake Stilts, 1983, the ladders derive literally from the pilings that raise houses above flood tides, again revealing the artist’s preoccupation with preservation and shelter. Not all of Connell’s safe dwellings can be reached easily however. The large, interrupted ladder in Untitled, 1981, presents a difficult, if not impossible, undertaking: its steps angle back and its incline steepens in its second stage, in which it passes through a partial enclosure—an indication that the world Connell builds is not without crisis.

The works on paper are handsome and textually dense and, like the sculptures, possess a recognizable integrity of material and intention. They are based, however, on a belief in an equivalence between natural sounds and graphic gesture. This raises complex questions we cannot fairly take up here, yet we must admit our critical doubt concerning the equation of the audio-graphic and the auto-gestural. Connell’s attempt to transcribe the calls and signals of the swamp may be more about the limitations of language and the subjective voice rather than the possible glyphic representation of nature’s songs.

Ed Hill and Suzanne Bloom