Soon after moving to New York in 1980, Arch Connelly became a fixture of the East Village art scene. A series of early solo shows at the influential FUN Gallery led to numerous other exhibitions and critical acclaim. But Connelly’s star has dimmed since his untimely death from AIDS in 1993; few of his works have circulated in the public sphere and a subsequent generation of like-minded artists may be recycling his creative strategies without knowledge of his achievement. To help remedy this neglect, Mary-Ann Monforton, the associate publisher of Bomb, organized this concise survey of Connelly’s career, which featured 37 works, selected ephemera and a video of tributes from family, friends and fellow artists.
Connelly is best known for using flashy and trashy materials. He consistently encrusted his paintings and sculptures with faux pearls and gemstones, bits and pieces of costume jewelry, paillettes, sequins, glitter and sometimes pennies. His ornate yet ersatz objects can look like jokes about the inflated monetary value of art and may now seem emblematic of the overheated market of the 1980s. But as this show ably demonstrated, Connelly teased other meanings from materials that are typically dismissed as inherently superficial and merely decorative.
As if channeling the Rococo, Connelly frequently fetishized aspects of the natural world, creating decidedly artificial surrogates of organic forms and forces. In several large landscape paintings he set dark silhouettes of mountains or mesas against the exposed grain of the plywood supports, which are softly tinted to look like twilight skies. Gaudy clusters of beads and baubles do not simply embellish these stylized vistas, but weirdly convey natural phenomena. In Personal Explosion (1984), for example, a starburst of multicolored faux pearls streaks across a coastal landscape, effectively competing with the pastel drama of the background sunset. A similar irony informs a nearby sculpture titled Chip (1982). This life-size, papier-mâché tree stump appears black and blasted, yet it supports the mosslike growth of countless artificial pearls and gemstones.
Connelly clearly understood that his trademark materials are also culturally coded as feminine and faggy. In several small but dense collages, photographs of naked men and gay sex are festooned with pictures of luxe jewelry clipped from magazines. This low-tech ornamentation celebrates hunky male bodies while undermining their aggressive masculinity. Normative gender roles are also upended in a ravishing group of seven “Self Portraits” that Connelly created between 1981 and 1989. In lieu of depicting any likeness, he covered each of these small canvases (some rectangular, others oval) with various mixtures of faux pearls, sequins and glitter. Equal parts allover abstraction and drag performance, they nod to art history, flaunt effeminacy and posit identity as an unstable, flickering mask. The especially poignant Blurry Self Portrait (1987) is a nebulous smear of black sequins limned with gold and white spangles and dusted with glitter. It reads like a fugitive shadow, conjuring both the artist and his absence.
Photo: Arch Connelly: Personal Explosion, 1984, mixed mediums on plywood, 48 by 24 inches; at La Mama La Galleria.