Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Larry Connatser Revisited

This is a review I wrote of  the Larry Connatser Retrospective show at the Telfair Museum in Savannah in 2002:

AUTHOR: Jack Miller
SOURCE:  Art Papers 27 no1 38 Ja/F 2003

    Entering the Telfair Museum of Art, a William Jay original in Savannah, it was a shock to see the galleries teeming with the paintings of LARRY CONNATSER in "Southern Melodies" (June 27--September 8, 2002). This exhilarating change from the well-known Ashcan paintings recalled the Picasso Museum, where bold, sexually explicit canvasses abound on seventeenth century walls.
    The maverick Connatser's lack of interest in conventional paths to fame--art school, gallery shows, living in Paris or New York--meant obscurity. Audiences reduced him to the category of regional artist, mistaking him for a primitive painter. His works, as this exhibit demonstrates, were the opposite: universal, knowing, sophisticated, innovative. The catalog details Connatser's familiarity with and advances upon Cubism, color theory and the works of Cezanne, Matisse and Klee. And these eighty works show he mastered Surrealism, his biomorphic figures conjuring Miro and Gorky.
    Pudenda fill Connatser's works as they did those of his Surrealist precursors. Naked figures frolic before stately Southern mansions or on the shores of Greek islands. Sun and sea make his mythical landscapes into utopias. At times, his figures romp oblivious to the worries of the world. More often, as in Winter Park (1995), symbols of Southern respectability surround them. This painting displays personal conflict. A mythic world of surreal beings and demons conveys a life of tortured struggle, reveals the artist's anguish over his sexual identity.
    The show's title misrepresents Connatser's art, which is neither "Southern" nor "melodious." The subject may be Southern houses and landscapes, and Connatser's love of music clearly influenced him. However, these works transcend the South. Jazz terms could work as well: "Global Boogies."
    The catalog praises Connatser's morality. The paintings, as I see them, satirize the pretense and hypocrisy of society. Nietzsche commented that Christianity gave Pan poison to drink; he did not die, but degenerated into vice. Connatser's satyr-like figures struggle to regain Dionysian bliss.
    Connatser's "dots," filling his mature works, do more than extend Pointillist ideas. Their texture and color scheme create a new dimension, cubist and surreal. They also contribute to the iconography. Many of Connatser's works, especially the untitled portraits from 1972, the late 1980s and 1992 resemble Byzantine icons. Archetypes abound, from flaming candles to theater stages, and religious symbols seductively commingle with the erotic.
    While Connatser's grappling with his identity provided drama and tension in his art, it hindered his success. Gay artists thrived in New York, California and Europe, but not in Savannah or Atlanta, where private collectors bought conservatively. To make a living, Connatser showed his works humbly in a small apartment/ gallery. When he contracted AIDS, his loyal friend Joan Cobitz, co-curator of this show, came to care for him. Death stalks his last paintings.
    There are also works of tranquility. An untitled work from 1983 presents a landscape similar to the marshes of Savannah. A boy, wearing what looks like a sombrero, rides a small horse beside a branching tree. The curators hung this work in the center of the gallery on a black wall. It was as if, after all the orgies and conflict, Connatser found his center in this sublime meditation.
    The Telfair deserves credit for giving Connatser appropriate recognition. As an Iris Murdoch character once said of Proust, "What a lot of pain there was all the way through. So how is it that the whole thing could vibrate with such pure joy?"

Source: Art Papers, January/February 2003, Vol. 27 Issue 1, p38

Slides of the show:

Monday, May 19, 2014

Review: New Southern Paintings 1989

New Southern Paintings
111 East Gwinnett Street
Savannah, Georgia
November 20 • December 31

With the opening of a new, expanded gallery at 111 East Gwinnctt Street, "New Southern Paintings" offered Savannah a look at genuine contemporary art, something other than the art for tourists offered at other galleries scattered about Savannah's historic district. Although there is a considerable difference in style and content among these works by five Southeastern artists, what unites them is an underlying sense of humor, or rather irony. Perhaps the most obviously ironic is the work of Robert Garey whose nude studies of women in strip clubs or in the observed intimacy of a bath recall the satire of Paul Cadmus. Like Cadmus, Garey makes clever allusions to classical art, as in Walk where winged shoes are worn by a bald, voluptuous woman. Also like Cadmus, Garey is a brilliant draftsman, rendering the male and female figure with nearly surreal precision. His wry perception of our society depicted In dives or on rough urban street comers reveals a quality of humanity that somehow survives the insults it encounters. For example, the women in Baby Doll have a dignity far surpassing that of the
derelicts and stooped men who observe them. Garey's skill as a draftsman is further evidenced in exquisite, large accompanying drawings on display. In contrast to Garey's large, detailed paintings are Rhonda Fleming Long's suggestive watercolor and crayon figure studies. These works are easily the lightest and most whimsical in the show. Several are humorous and mildly erotic like Looking at Phil which portrays a pensive, bearded man sitting nude, contemplating what may be a glass of brandy, or what may be his genitals, cupped in his hands. A cat. looking almost like a rat, rolls in front of him, also eyeing whatever he holds. Known for her mastery of medium and
form, Elizabeth Cain continues to reveal her skill in her new works. Elemental Shutter consists of oil paint on plaster affixed to an actual window shutter. The large painting Square Dance is a blend of color, form, and texture. Gain's work is the most consistently "modem'" of the show, with its primary concern for surface quality. Her work has virtually none of the "postmodern" interest in classical figure, political and satirical meaning, or literary and art historical reference found in the works of the other four artists.

Larry Connatser is what I call a Fauve pointillist. True to the meaning of Fauve, his paintings often show primitive beasts emerging from lush vegetation in settings rich with color. The dot patterns swirl into energy fields of figurative form often recalling the biomorphism of Miro and Gorky. Although not Connatser's best, the three pieces in this show are good examples of his current work. Paintings For An Exhibition shows his ability to bring the frame itself into the picture space. Head Of A Composer is a playful mixture of musical forms around a lion-like portrait. For its depth and vision, A Painted Chair By The Marsh was the best of the three. The scene is reminiscent of Savannah's marshland, with its winding tidal rivers and swirling sky of an approaching storm. Tlie acrylic "sketch" on view in the sitting room is Connatser at his biomorphic
height. What is clearly the artist himself is portrayed beholding the female form floating before him. a blue dog at his feet. Ironic humor triumphs.

In the main gallery downstairs Gina Gilmour is represented by three small studies
and a large painting. The Devil and The Good Old Boys, The last continues to show the irony and wit of the other four artists in its colorful portrayal of two businessmen completing a deal with the Devil as a gardener mowing grass looks on. Massive columns in the background imply the weight of political power.
As one mounts the stairs to Gilmour's separate show in the upstairs gallery, the
words "Civil Disobedience" are scrawled along the wall. One is then confronted with large wash drawings of police brutality and videos of AIDS activism and civil disobedience. Gilmour further expresses the political function of this show with T-shirts and buttons proclaiming "Silence = Death." Unfortunately, the political function makes the art itself secondary. Unlike Gilmour's painting downstairs, the works upstairs give way to blatant preaching, as in the three long didactic videos. Considering the political climate of Savannah, the gallery does offer an opportunity to see the sort of political protest art that is showing in other large cities around the country. For this opportunity alone, I commend the show.

One of the best works of art on display here is the gallery itself. Owner John Lee has transformed his house into a near perfect space of light and form. The two large rooms central to the gallery are lit by sunlight diffused through white fabric placed over tall windows, as well as standard track lighting. The spacious area Is made cozy and intimate by small fireplaces. The galleries and the hallway take
the viewer's attention directly to the art work. The sitting room in the back makes one aware of Lee's genius for placement. Not one thing seems out of place. The comfortable room offers the viewer opportunity to sit and contemplate additional work. There, too, one can sec the more subtle works of Gilmour, such as her "Rescue" series which I found to be sensual, dreamlike paintings far richer than those upstairs. In fact, the upstairs space almost makes the show, adding to the sense of being outcast that those who suffer AIDS experience. All in all 111 offers Savannians something more than the usual run-of-the-mill. New Southern Paintings deserves our attention, and our gratitude.

Jack Miller

Jack Miller teaches aesthetics at the Atlanta
College of Art and is librarian at the High Museum.

Article for Art Papers -- 1987

Pretty Face,
Art in Savannah

Jack Miller

Asked by the Art Association of Savannah to jury and judge awards for the annual "Arts on the River" show, I made the four hour drive from Atlanta through the warming spring countryside to Savannah. I always feel, as I veer from the freeway to Florida, as 1 pass Macon onto the long, lonely highway to the coast, that I am headed for some isolated outpost of civilization. Four days of viewing the city and its art
showed me a new form of isolation.

My colleague, an artist from Hilton Head, and I met at the Art Association showroom overlooking the Savannah River and River Street. The works we were to jury were arranged around the large room by category: photography, graphics, watercolor, and painting—oil, acrylic, and mixed media. Several pastels were grouped with the watercolors. After jurying, we were to give cash awards to the best in each category as well as a best-in-show award. We were also allowed several honorable mentions.

Arts on the River failed to
consider Savannah's frightening
secrets; in the Atlanta Biennale,
no abyss, nor horror, perversion, death
image, or form of destruction was
too ghastly to present.

What struck me immediately was the absence of controversy. The works before me were of seven types: colorful flower studies, cute animals, dockside or seaside scenes, more or less realistic renderings of pleasant looking people, fish, birds, and attractive homes. There were few exceptions. Let me make clear, forthwith, that I admire pretty pictures.
Perhaps no collection of paintings has moved me more than the lush studies by Matisse of rooms opening to the Mediterranean, shown in the "Early Years in Nice" show at the National Gallery. The Neo-Impressionist works in the recent exhibitions at the High Museum have similarly brought sighs of aesthetic pleasure. But as I walked around that room in Savannah, looking at pretty scene after pretty scene, removing only those that were incompetent, incoherent, or incomplete, I began to ask myself just what had produced so many attempts at escape. I found this display nothing short of immoral.
Savannah is an odd town. With its quaint squares, grand brick mansions from past centuries, moss-sagged oaks, and profusion of blooms, it is the very picture of Southern charm. What is less obvious upon first encounter are the murder, rape, and suicide rates, the robberies, the water and air pollution (obvious if the wind is westerly), the sprawling
military bases, the Savannah River Plant seeping radioactive tritium and other wastes into the water supply, extreme poverty, AIDS appearing among a quiet gay population, the homeless camped out in the quaint
squares, and violent racial tension. I know of these because I have lived in Savannah off and on throughout my life. I have lost friends to murder and to suicide there, and known others who have suffered many of the city's ills.
What, though, has any of this to do with the art show? R.G. Collingwood, writing of T.S. Eliot, offers the answer: "His business as an artist is to speak out, to make a clean breast. But what he has to utter is not, as the individualist theory of art would have us think, his own secrets. As spokesman of his community, the secrets he must utter are theirs." 1

The art of the "Arts on the River" failed to communicate or even to consider in any way Savannah's frightening secrets. I have often heard the question, "There is enough horror already; isn't it better for art to give us entertainment and beauty?" We all know well enough the fable of the ostrich. The artists of the Savannah region seem likewise to prefer a
head-in-the-sand pose as defense against encroaching dangers. Thinking that a more enlightened view might be found elsewhere in Savannah, I ventured to see the current show at the mushrooming Savannah College of Art and Design, which featured an Atlanta artist in its highly visible Exhibit A Gallery. There, amid pretty knicknacks for tourists, saleable student crafts, and scenic photos, I saw, to my dismay, a show made up of flat, pink and yellow watercolor flowers. There could be no avoiding the conclusion: in a word, the art of Savannah is a cover-up. It is an attempt to hide the disturbing ills eating away at the city's core.
The reader may well ask at this point, "If you think pretty art is so immoral, do you think ugliness will make us any better off?" To answer, 1 have to refer to another recent show which was the exact opposite of the one in Savannah, the "Atlanta Biennale" at Nexus. There, no abyss, no horror, perversion, death image, or form of destruction was too ghastly to present. The dark side of existence was fully celebrated, to
the exclusion of everything remotely appealing or beautiful. But such omission of the beautiful is no less an escape art than the omission of the horrors of life.What neither the Savannah show nor the Nexus show
achieved was a sense of vital connection—neither communicated a 

For all its phalluses and explicit
eroticism, excitement was missing from
much of the art in the Nexus show. The
Savannah show was too pretty to
excite anyone.

balance between, or even a sense of the struggle between, the good and evil forces affecting human existence. Herbert Read expressed the necessity of this vital connection when he wrote, "Art is human, not divine: profane, not sacred. It does not descend in Pentecostal flames: it arises like a green sap; like a seminal fluid, it issues from the body, and from the body in an unusual state of excitement."For all its phalluses and explicit eroticism, it was just such excitement that was missing from much of the art in the Nexus show. The Savannah show was too pretty to excite anyone.

Returning along the stretch of lonely road back to Atlanta, I could not resolve which was the greater immorality: an art that utterly ignored present day horrors, or an art that showed nothing but horror, with no redeeming vision. In the Nexus show, blame must rest with the curator whose focus seemed almost always on the obscene and the ugly. Since
the Savannah show was open to all, the blame there must reside with a community of artists who refuse to face the ills which, one day soon, may destroy their flowers and remove the smiles from the pretty faces they paint.

1 Quoted in George Dickie, Aesthetics (New York: Pegasus, 1971) p.94.

2 Herbert Read, The Philosophy of Modern Art (Cleveland- The
World Publishing Company, 1967), p. 66.

Jack Miller is visiting professor of philosophy and aesthetics at the Atlanta College of Art and Museum Librarian of the High Museum.

Barbara Schreiber, Revisited

Here is one of the first art reviews I wrote for Art Papers:

Barbara Schreiber

Defending the Flower (from her recent work)
  • Source: Art Papers Date: July 1, 1987
Barbara Schreiber
Callanwolde Fine Arts Center
Atlanta, Georgia
May 1 - 29

Barbara Schreiber's recent exhibition
at Callanwolde of thirteen acrylic paintings
on paper combined qualities of
modernism with a postmodern social
concern and use of symbols. The viewer
is immediately aware of the medium,
the rich use of color, the exquisite paper—
and all the qualities Clive Bell extolled
as "Significant Form." Yet, simultaneously,
one is aware of the subject
matter: the disharmony between nature
and humanity.
At first, looking over the images of
comic figures in hostile or foreboding
landscapes, one feels indulgence in the
pleasure of seeing nature and its forces
shatter the eruptions of humankind.
Chicago, Memphis, Biloxi, and Palm
Beach are inundated by tidal waves in
the four works that make up "Into the
Water." Farm house and city buildings
are equally decimated by nature's might
in Country Weather/City Weather.
Other images create variations on this
theme. In Are You Ready For L.A.? the
setting is inviting enough, but the three
grotesque, grinning figures recall biting
gremlins. Fat Boy in the Full Moon suggests
a vital connection between the boy
and the moon he resembles. Yet there
are alienation and a faceless uneasiness
in the painting.
This uneasiness increases the more
closely one views Schreiber's works. It
continues as her images haunt the
memory. What was merely comic at
first takes on a sinister aspect, revealing
the callousness of human vanity and the
unnatural evil it produces. This evil is
depicted in Looking Great All the Time,
in which the fluff of a newsperson's pastel
blond hair is far more important and
requires more attention than the dying
figures in the disaster she is about to report.
Ambulance Chasers with its sinister,
ghostly ambulance gaped at by
thrill-seeking onlookers reveals a similar
Schreiber is able to communicate her
sense of nature and human disconnection
on many levels. Her modernism, including
her mastery of color, allows her
to work on a subconscious level, using
rich earth colors for nature and sickly,
pastel colors for people and what they
have erected, whether skyscrapers, automobiles,
houses, or helicopters. The last,
used in two of the paintings, recall the
destructive "choppers" in such Vietnam
war films as Apocalypse Now. Schreiber
is also able to use the most basic archetypal
symbols in ways straightforward
and simple enough not to be trite. The
sun, moon, and sea all appear in new aspects
in her paintings. In Pull Sun, for instance,
the sun seems diseased, turned
green by what is, no doubt, smog from
the nearby city. The lone sunbather on
the long expanse of beach appears to be
dead. Similarly, the pinkish biomorphic
figure Laid Out on a Slope looks like an
ecological disaster victim dead on a
Grant Wood landscape of round, green
The sensually rendered images offer a
wide range of possible interpretations,
allowing humor and allowing horror. I
began to imagine that Schreiber desires
some sort of pagan pantheism, longing
for lost rituals that would reconnect us
with sun, moon, sea, and land. Her expression
of the richness of the earth, sky,
and water is too loving to be otherwise. I
wonder, though, given the sort of humanity
revealed in the form of ambulance
chasers and egoistic newscasters,
how we are to avoid ending up, ourselves,
like the apparently dead cows lying
prey to the sinister, purple auto
rounding the slope of A Ride in the
One of Oscar Wilde's famous quips
was that it is nature which imitates art.
He meant, of course, that art influences
the way we see and hence what we see. I
hope in the case of Schreiber's art that
reality does not come to imitate the vision
she renders. Or better, that Schreiber
comes in future paintings to present
to us a vision of a humanity worth imitating.
Jack Miller

Jack Miller is visiting professor of philosophy
and aesthetics at the Atlanta College of Art.