Saturday, July 19, 2008

Jeff Stimmel , "The Art of Failure: Chuck Connelly Not for Sale" (2008).

About a week ago a friend told me about an HBO documentary called The Art of Failure. The subject of the film is a Pittsburgh native named Chuck Connelly, who found success in the New York arts scene in the 80's alongside such names as Basquiat and Schnabel. Truthfully I despaired of having the opportunity to see it, since I don't have cable. Fortunately on my recent trip to Eastern PA my host had plenty of channels. Although I kept myself busy with other stuff, I did get an hour here and there to surf the tube. One night after returning from a long walk I plopped down on the sofa and started scanning the program guide. I was pleased by serendipity when I discovered that I would get a chance to watch The Art of Failure from the beginning.

Right from the start it was clear that Chuck Connelly was a bit unstable. He paced through the screen nervously, ranting and raving against his perceived enemies and the injustices of his life. He was shown haranguing a woman who I soon figured out was his ex-wife, and it was clear that being around Connelly must be a trial. He is the true manifestation of the artist as L'enfant terrible. He drinks incessantly, and becomes increasingly agitated until the point of violence. This isn't surprising as he is said to view himself as a Jackson Pollock-type, outside the realms of polite cultured society. Apparently he learned quite early that he would be allowed a certain amount of self-indulgence, given his profuse talent.

But evidently Connelly miscalculated the reception his act would generate. At one point he looked assured to attain the lofty ranks of art-stardom. He was represented by Annina Nosei, and courted by collectors and celebrities. He sold millions of dollars in paintings. Martin Scorcese even used him as his subject in his segment of New York Stories. According to the tale that director Jeff Stimmel spins, this tribute actually led to his downfall. After New York Stories (starring Nick Nolte as the infamously truculent artist) was released, Connelly was asked for his reaction to the film by The New York Post. He called the portrayal mundane and cliché, and made a rather unflattering comparison to Scorcese's masterpiece, Raging Bull.

While Connelly's remarks about New York Stories were obviously impolitic, this viewer found the premise that they singlehandedly sabotaged his career a bit implausible. Connelly had clearly built a track record of being recalcitrant. No matter how things were going for him, he seemed to have the belief that he deserved better. But there were other factors that may have kept him from being as prominent as he would have liked. It's clear that from the many examples of his paintings shown in The Art of Failure that his style was far from consistent. His subject matter and aesthetic approaches were all over the map. No doubt his talent was prodigious, but there doesn't seem to be any real cohesion that would tie his work together.

Nonetheless I would certainly love to get my hands on a few of his artworks. His expressionist brushwork lends an undeniable charm to the most challenging of subjects. One specific piece has a portrait of a particularly ugly Santa Claus overlaid with the word "Ho-mo". There are also post-apocalyptic cityscapes and a cavalcade of freaks. No doubt the exposure that The Art of Failure is likely to bring to Connelly will go some length in reviving his career. He has alienated a lot of people, but his most grievous sins are now buried in the past. The current media environment has a very short memory. Reportedly Connelly is achieving a measure of success now. Who says there are no second acts in the Twenty-First Century??

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Blogger Rick Byerly said...

i truly appreciate his unfiltered approach to painting

12:55 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

Yeah Rick,

I think I should note that I too enjoyed several of his works. That may have gotten lost in my comments about his personality. While his diversity and range is a drawback from a marketing perspective, it definitely makes his vast body of work more interesting to a casual viewer.

4:01 PM  

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