New York

Arch Connelly, Culture and Landscape, 1985, acrylic, faux pearls, and chain on silk, 
42 x 42".

Arch Connelly, Culture and Landscape, 1985, acrylic, faux pearls, and chain on silk,
42 x 42".

Arch Connelly

La MaMa Galleria

Arch Connelly, Culture and Landscape, 1985, acrylic, faux pearls, and chain on silk, 
42 x 42".

This small show of works by Arch Connelly was uplifting in the spirit sensible all through it and at the same time tremendously sad. I don’t think you had to have known Connelly, who died in 1993, to have that second response, though it might have helped to have lived in New York in the 1970s and ’80s, when the gay culture that held him and that he helped to shape went through first a dramatic, ecstatic flowering and then the brutal reduction imposed by the AIDS crisis. The show immediately summoned that history for those who lived through it, and also the shorter moment when Manhattan’s East Village was the center of an artist community and of a constellation of art and performance spaces and galleries, notably including the Fun Gallery, where Connelly exhibited. His show made me think, not for the first time, of how radically the decimation of the AIDS generation has altered New York, and of the city their presence here would have embodied and that we now will never know. The strength of Connelly’s work made that thought all the sharper.

A manuscript shown in a vitrine in the exhibition was a kind of manifesto: “MY WORK is MANNERED, is HOMOSEXUAL, is EFFETE, is BASE, is SNOBISH,” and on through a long string of further queenly adjectives, including selfish, egotistical, and self-righteous, before switching to verbs: “IT WILL . . . point, thrill, and fill SPACE, D E C O R A T E, I M P L I C A T E.” Decoration was key to Connelly’s art, which generally took the form of faux pearls, rhinestones, and other shiny, bright things densely appliquéd over both everyday objects—Connelly was a connoisseur of furniture—and the artist’s paintings, or else applied as paintings. In one picture shown here, Culture and Landscape, 1985, a purplish expanse of mountains and mesas in acrylic on silk is half obscured by a wide, irregular belt of multicolored faux pearls. The work is round, a tondo—a typical format for Connelly, who certainly used the usual rectangles but, being in no way himself square or straight, just as often escaped them—and is encircled by a showy gold chain as a frame. Since the “landscape” named in the title must be the mountains, “culture” must be the band of pearls that spreads to overtake them, a smart, witty conceit that is probably in part a pun on cultured pearls but is also a larger statement: Cheap, devalued, trashy, artificial, the pearls nevertheless, or therefore, imply a culture that is eye-catching, glamorous, and transformative—the kind of culture that Connelly worked to realize by living his life.

Connelly’s approach was in some ways allied with Pattern and Decoration (P&D), the movement of artists such as Joyce Kozloff, Robert Kushner, and others who thought through a decorative aesthetic in the 1970s. Those artists were reacting against the proximate visual austerity of Minimalist and Conceptual art and their derivatives, but also against the longer modernist history, in which the decorative was considered trivial and was suppressed—an attitude with subtextual consequences for gay-male and women artists (and also, incidentally, for an artist such as Matisse, a powerful influence in a good deal of P&D). Their work, like Connelly’s, was both optically lush and ultimately political, but Connelly’s was, generally speaking, funkier, more explicit, and more personal. I know of nothing in P&D like Blurry Self Portrait or Self Portrait VIII, both 1987, in which the artist describes himself through and as a glittering sheet of sequins.

I remember a party during which Connelly at one point took over the hostess’s closet and began trying on her clothes. No one minded; everybody laughed. Simultaneously graceful and outrageous, Connelly carried that stance through into his work, whose flamboyance was more fragile than we knew.

David Frankel