'It remains a truth, though not a fashionable one, that the chief problem of any artist, in any genre, will be a shortage of talent—something that cannot be solved by technical innovation or aesthetic sloganeering. '
John Connell, Kuan-Shi-Yin & the Fumblers, iron oxide and pigments on paper, 17” x 14”, nd
Works on Paper by Eugene Newmann and John Connell, at PHIL Space, joins the drawings of two men whose friendship turned over the course of three decades into a remarkable episodic working partnership, ended only by Connell’s death in 2009. Notably, the two men created The Raft Project in the early nineties, a sort of Bridge of Sighs between the first breath of Modernism and the Eschaton. Beyond that, theirs was a meeting of minds and talents too formidable to be derailed by inspiration or undone by the example of another artist. In Connell’s case, rigorous academic experience under the atelier system at the Art Students League, in New York, followed by many years of large-scale practical experience as a set designer, muralist, and printmaker grounded his moody genius and demanding eye. His work is often rough, tough, gestural, probing, and sometimes touched with real grandeur. Buddhism and private demons, along with an ingrained sense of drawing, allowed Connell to cover huge surfaces with rhapsodic shadows that look like they were cut with an engraving tool. Still, the ideas in Connell’s work stop far short of explaining why his drawings and sculpture have such a purchase on the imagination. The explanation may reside in what I read as a rich and various spirit in his work: a daunting blend of introspection, ferocious curiosity, and a demotic heart that shifts even his scribblings on bags into social speech. Invariably, it’s a speech that resists solicitation. Connell couldn’t care less if our assumptions are challenged. His productions are continuous presences, attached like chains to human nature, anxieties corporeal rather than corporate.
In essence, Newmann is of the same kidney as Connell, but of different spleen. Leaving his homeland in Slovakia, his early years were spent in Barranquilla, Colombia, where he began painting in earnest. Primarily an easel painter, Newmann inhabits a subliminal zone just adjacent to the temple of premeditation that is art with a capital A. No dissembler, he quotes easily and confidently from the accumulated language of his predecessors, releasing powerful associative cargo from the parts, signs, and fragments of earlier configurations. His analysis of fleeting instants—the Deposition Studies, Icarus, Descents—suggests why in Works on Paper these two dogged and idiosyncratic minds were so firmly engaged. They both detect incipient permanence in what appears to be superficial ephemera, as if each object in the world nurses an erupting infernal universe within. For Newmann, an object is like Dr. Who’s Tardis—bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. And while the result is something particular, its branches bristle into the canopy of the conceptual.
Eugene Newmann, Descents (Mostly from Russo), ink on paper, 12” x 81⁄2”, nd
Bad popular artists come and go. It remains a truth, though not a fashionable one, that the chief problem of any artist, in any genre, will be a shortage of talent—something that cannot be solved by technical innovation or aesthetic sloganeering. As viewers, we are at least half-hooked by the careerist who exhorts us to challenge, confront, or question our own assumptions, although more often than not we find ourselves questioning theirs. Who among us hasn’t left an installation feeling as if he had just exited, in Raymond Chandler’s words, “a service station glaring with wasted light”? None of these postmodern anxieties are on display here. For artists, this is an exhibition that exemplifies what Gore Vidal identified as “energy balanced by a guiding intelligence,” a simple critical heuristic once employed by artists and critics alike. Nowadays, one needs not only a compass, but a machete to cut through the exciting heavy weather of mannerisms, infantile chic, and ill-digested culture larding the common stuff of art-making. On display in Works on Paper is a degree of aesthetic literacy that cannot be faked. Not only in the ephemera of preparatory study, but also in the integument of draftsmanship in all its singularity and sheer quirkiness. Good judgment and misjudgment stand out plainly. Whether or not the work is deliberately expressive or academically correct, the hard and soft energetic qualities of the line disclose meaning in the very course of searching for it, or efface it in the same process. In many ways this exhibition is an ontography, utterly devoid of any businesslike sense of inventory or documentation, whereby clusters and visual dust devils spin toward and into the barely governable forces of thought, object, and scene.
With the passing of artists John Connell, Ken Price, and Charles Strong, as well as gallerist and art writer Stephen Parks, much has been subtracted from the emotional range, formal vitality, and material energy of New Mexico’s ambitious arts culture. Thankfully, we still have James Hart and venues like PHIL Space mounting intelligent exhibitions like this one, reminding us of the real continuities in our visual culture.