Arch Connelly

Illinois Art Gallery

All dressed up in a sumptuous array of baubles, bangles, and beads, the works of Arch Connelly are charming essays that keenly probe some aspect of pictorial surfeit. His regular descents into overt opulence are so openhanded as to be disarming, and his ebullient manipulation of the faux-jewels, jazzy sequins, and glitter that make up most of his palette is assured enough to carry a weight far beyond that of the materials themselves. Connelly—who died of AIDS in New York City last year and is celebrated here in a memorial retrospective in the state of his birth and training—was an artist who enjoyed operating in the muddy zone between camp and kitsch, always willing to risk excess in order to pursue the kind of goofy elegance he regularly achieved. His assemblages, sculptures, and paintings constitute a wonderful in-joke, imbued with enough cloying artisanry to make his glitter and sequins scintillate with pleasure.

The rectangle was often too staid to carry his rococo wanderings; more than half of the works shown here are round or oval. Curving edges provide just the added fillip and slight dislocation that invite further embellishment. In Perfect Kiss, 1985, Connelly tautly wrapped a circular orb with a sequence of gauzy scarves that coalesce at the center of the piece. He then encrusted parts of the scarves with a dynamic array of faux-pearls of different sizes—a few dozen of the thousand or more that are in this exhibition—radiating out in erratic rhythms from the center. Connelly’s art is not without its wistful and poignant aura, and a kind of fragility of feeling can lie just beneath its thickly bejewelled surfaces. This work, from its title to his subsequent layering of effusive “riches,” bespeaks his effort to render an emotive substance through his manipulation of tacky but oddly sincere materials.

Another substance Connelly employed was bits of flattened eggshell, which cascade across the surface like manna falling from heaven. His painstaking application of this material onto often monochromatic abstract paintings reflected a sensitivity to the delicate nature of the eggshell and with it he created a brittle craquelure. Snow Leopard, 1993, is an ivory-white piece; the slight discolorations among the eggshell bits the residue of a nature Connelly was loathe to supress, here nearly submerging it within a cocoon of white paint. In his varying responses to his raw materials, Connelly was able to key up or down depending on his sources. His several, extremely busy collages, both spoofing and indulging in a certain kind of megahunk, gay erotica (one of these, Local Boy, 1991, appeared on the cover of the November 1991 issue of Artforum), produce a visual onslaught that is characteristic of his work. From the dizzying amplitude of these pieces—and of much of his work—it is clear that for Connelly rampant excess in the pursuit of charm and liveliness was no vice.

James Yood