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Installation view of John Connell: Earth-Touching Buddha, part of Programme One exhibition at Peters Projects. Courtesy Peters Projects

John Connell: Works and John Connell: Earth-Touching Buddha, A Review

Coming face to face with John Connell’s art, both in person and in reproduction, imparts a sense of quizzicality. Puzzlement about the way that artworks so earthbound as to express particles of dirt, sand and tar can also appear shot with air. Roots curl toward water as wings lift off ground; liminality meets ascendance.

I moved full-time to Santa Fe in 1993; that summer, Linda Durham Gallery, where Connell exhibited, showed Works II: Selections from the Raft Project (with Eugene Newmann).

I wonder bemusedly, looking through the images in the gorgeous new monograph, John Connell: Works: 1965-2009 (Santa Fe: Radius Books, 2015), whether I actually saw the Raft in that selections show, or whether the 30-foot barque interpreting Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa and the artist’s fascination with darkness wasn’t actually on display that time. I have a sudden small sense of loss or omission.

MaLin Wilson-Powell, who authored the plangent, gorgeous essay in the monograph  — designed by art-book designer and close Connell friend, Michael Motley (with David Chickey of Radius Books) — had generously recommended me in that 1993 year to write critical reviews across from her, on alternating weeks for Albuquerque Journal North. Over many phone conversations, MaLin helped me learn to read the art world of Santa Fe in ways both routine and extraordinary. The details she imparted made Santa Fe’s cast of artists seem the more mysterious and deep.

Disquietude recurs as a feeling during several sequences of looking at the book. The volume covers Connell’s work starting in 1965 and ending in 2009 — when the artist died suddenly on a September day in Maine, age 68. The works dated that year are iron oxide, pigment and pencil sketches that given the insights of hindsight resemble pale studies for becoming airborne.

In the 1980s, Connell had sculpted in plaster-of-Paris. He later used tar, paper, wax. He also cast bronze and ferro-cement, and sculpted with wood and chicken wire. Drawings incorporated collage or the quickness of a surface like a feed bag.

Selected John Connell bronze sculptures, Earth-Touching Buddha, are being shown until August 1st at Peters Projects in the current Programme One exhibition, curated by executive director Ylise Kessler. This show provides the opportunity to see both some of the very large sculptures  — the nominal Earth-Touching Buddha (2002) and Figures from the Kuan-Yin Pavilion (1990)   — along with smaller bronze birds and buddhas whose hand-crushed folds are retained in the castings. Connell’s work reminds of an elementary if overlooked aspect of contemporary art that scale is not always defined by size.

The frangible Buddhas with arms of wood shims and blackened bodies of paper, wire, tar and sand respire in ways sacred and profane. The frangibility or brittleness they communicate is not because they seem in danger of disintegrating; rather, more because it appears that what Connell is questioning is the nature of material essence. Wilson-Powell remarks upon their apocalyptic black scorch in her essay. They do indeed speak to a conflagration of flesh, but flesh that could be said to be cringing inside itself: Buddhas impersonating Willy Loman, or vice versa.

As one regards the sculptures and reproductions of drawings torn out of sketchbooks, the demarcations that Connell’s hands made to pattern his figures — nervous with the hover of the instrument  — ask for a closer look. What was being conveyed in the exquisite-corpse-like Tea-Caddy Saint (2004), or the figures grappling darkly in Ancient Wedding (1987)? One can peer in and think also of Leon Golub, thanatos, and the eros of Kama Sutra illustrations.

The works in wood for me remain singular. Man with Shovel is a headless toiler whose foot and tool, as he plunges the implement into ground, are joined as if by sinew of barn-wood. The artist embraced an aspect of imprecision to figures so anxiously animated that they seem cellular and motile.

After an hour with the book and two reads through the essay, I flash suddenly on a memory of the time before I went to Japan, when I read in a guidebook that at 15-year intervals the Japanese tear down and rebuild some of their ancient Buddhist temples—architectural reconstruction pre-figuring the inevitable calamity. I ponder whether Connell’s was an aesthetic analog to this tearing down in order to save.  The for-the-time-being of his art proposes a counter-eternity.

As I look back at this work, I feel as odd in my skin as if somebody had asked me to step back into the person I was 22 years ago.

It’s the foot resting outside the cross-legged meditational symmetry of Earth-Touching Buddha (2002), and the slight occlusion of his brow, that finally re-assert how human this creator was, and how so many of his objects (They’re Stumbling through the Air Over Kuan-Yin Lake, 1985) exude aspiration and earthliness, category and limit-breaking. They express a spectacle of watching, revering even, inviting us to do the same.


John Connell: Earth-Touching Buddha is on view at Peters Projects, 1011 Paseo de Peralta, Santa Fe, until August 1st.

John Connell: Works:1965-2009 was published this spring by Radius Books. The book includes essays by MaLin Wilson-Powell and Donald Hess. Book design is by Michael Motley, with David Chickey. Click here for ordering information.

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