by Lou Mancinelli
Tucked away in obscurity in East Oak Lane is Chuck Connelly, 59, a master painter who after experiencing fame early in his career has grown to be ignored by his generation. There, he has created a voluminous body of work, like Dostoevsky with a brush.
Connelly, whose work has been exhibited by the Chestnut Hill Gallery, where he does have an ally in owner Joe Borelli, grew up in Pittsburgh where his dad used to yell at him to come out of the basement, where as a kid Connelly was copying sketches freehand.
By 1991, 15 years after graduating from Tyler School of Art, Connelly’s work was being collected by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and he was being represented by the Annina Nosei Gallery, a springboard for that generation’s rising artists. Connelly seemed to be on the fast track to fame and fortune.
His years as a young artist were once chronicled by Oscar-winning film director Martin Scorsese. Part of Connelly’s story was also told in the 2008 Emmy award winning HBO documentary, “The Art of Failure: Chuck Connelly Not for Sale.”
By that time Connelly was struggling to survive. He hadn’t had a major show since 1990, and his incendiary personality and volcanic temper became as well known by all the key players in the New York art world as his supreme talent. As a result, Connelly’s previous success dried up like a prune.
“Every time a big opportunity came his way, he (Connelly) made sure he was being right and pointing out wrongs into whatever relationship he had with everyone, telling the naked truth and disregarding the consequences,” one former colleague is quoted as saying in the documentary.
A drunk and irate Connelly screams into the camera in one scene, “I don’t need your f— art world. I can sell this shit myself.”
I recently sat down with Connelly, whose work last showed locally at the Chestnut Hill Gallery in December, 2012. When I arrived at his home, Connelly led me in through his porch that was lined with dozens of paintings stacked against the wall like screens stored inside for the winter. Paint covered his hands like dirt under a landscaper’s fingernails. The home opens into his studio in the front room of his home, where empty paint tubes filled rows of a shelf in the corner, making it look knowing and old like a traveled ship. The light was dim. More canvases lined the walls inside, too, their color and scenes like flickering lights.
I was captivated immediately. There is a prolific substance in Connelly’s studio, which is likely the place his neighbors in similar Victorian-esque homes call the dining room. For the past 14 years, Connelly has continued to paint away from the New York art world that once embraced him as much as he embraced and grappled with it. He lives in a house full of masterpieces and nightmare, beauty and the elements of an Old Master, like a prize fighter waiting and working for another title bout, unsure if it will ever come. Whether or not his recognition returns matters little, for Connelly’s work speaks for itself. Still, who doesn’t like to be known?
After graduating from Tyler in 1977 Connelly survived in West Oak Lane for a few years on welfare, where he dove into life as a painter. He moved to New York at the turn of the decade where Dr. Robert Atkins, of later Atkins Diet fame, became his first patron. Atkins financed two years abroad in Germany during the early ‘80s. When he returned, Connelly arrived on the New York art scene.
By the late ‘80s Connelly was evolving into a glimpse of success. He lived and painted in a huge loft in the SoHo neighborhood. Destiny had spoken. “I was aligned,” he said about the time.
But that was a different time. Connelly’s path from fame faded. He suffered from being marked as painter with a documented reputation for a sharp mouth and a drink lust. While he fought in the ring with alcohol for years, he quit drinking three years ago and has remained sober since.
“It’s not the drinking that’s the problem; it’s the painting,” he said during our first interview about some of his struggles. Painting may be the thing Connelly loves most, and it may be the thing that has caused him life’s greatest pains. If that sounds familiar, maybe that’s what art is, a familiar look at what we have and might have otherwise missed.
“My nightmare here has become my comfort zone,” he said.
In 1989, Martin Scorsese directed a film that was roughly based on Connelly called “Life Lessons,” part of a “New York Stories” trilogy. Connelly, who was portrayed by Nick Nolte, was later quoted as calling the film “cliché,” which is said to have upset Scorsese. Connelly says that he is a cliché, and that’s OK. Maybe his story, the portrait of the artist, is a cliché because he is talented enough to be considered the portrait of the artist.
Connelly has rightfully raised comparisons to Goya and Van Gogh. He has never taught a class or waited tables. He has survived on sales and patronage, though he has now alienated many of his patrons with his brash behavior. He is a pure artist. As they say, you live by the gun; you die by the gun, so Connelly lives by the brush.
In the 1980s, Connelly sold more than a million dollars worth of paintings, a number that became less once galleries and dealers were compensated, much like the way record companies make more money than the musicians who create the music. By the late ‘90s his sales had decreased to the point where the rising rents in New York cost too much. Connelly moved to East Oak Lane, where he has lived off sales since.
“Big mistake,” he said about the move. He says Philadelphia is like a ghost town compared to New York’s art life. Contemporaries have called Connelly a powerful artist. His name was once spoken with other pillars of the era like Jeff Koons and Jean-Michael Basquiat, whose works now sell for millions.
When I asked him how the value of a painting or artist is created, Connelly compared it to fabricating value in a stock. The way value is created is by getting people talking about an artist, and by connecting the artist with buyers willing to pay millions for what is considered by popular tastes to be the best art of the day.
Despite his fading from the mainstream tastes of the time, Connelly knows he is a great painter. And he seems to understand his place, even if others do not. “I guess good art shouldn’t really fit into its time,” he said. “As much as you think that you should recognize the Van Gogh or whatever, the fact that you don’t is what makes it a Van Gogh. Like the obvious could be right in front of your face, and you just can’t see it.
“So people go around looking for the next Van Gogh by looking at outlandish things that I don’t get. They ignore the things that I do get, because they can’t be new. So they’re looking for the crazy thing first.”
Those comments came during our second interview. Later during that same interview, Connelly painted my portrait. He put a living image of me on the canvas reminiscent of Cezanne’s portraits. The tones reminded me of his “The Card Players.”
I looked like I might get up and walk off the canvas yet I was pinned there like a flag to a pole. I had never seen a painting done before and I was captivated by how hands-on it was, yet simple like a farmer shucking corn.
– PART TWO OF CONNELLY ARTICLE NEXT WEEK
Want to support the Local? Join the Chestnut Hill Community Association. Membership helps fund what we do. Join today.