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