Bodhi of work


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John Con­nell: Earth-Touch­ing Buddha at Peters Projects

When Sid­dhartha Gau­tama, the his­toric sage who be­came known as Buddha, is de­picted in med­i­ta­tion po­si­tion, his left hand rest­ing in his lap, palm up­right, and his right hand touch­ing the earth, the im­age rep­re­sents the mo­ment of his en­light­en­ment. It also sig­ni­fies his mo­ment of tri­umph over Mara, the en­tity whose de­monic forces were ar­rayed against Gau­tama to pre­vent him from reach­ing his goal. The paint­ings and sculp­tures of John Con­nell (1940-2009) are rooted in Bud­dhist tra­di­tion, and that mythic mo­ment Gau­tama ex­pe­ri­enced un­der the bodhi tree is a sub­ject Con­nell re­turned to time and again, not shy­ing away from de­pict­ing the di­a­bol­i­cal forces at­tempt­ing to un­seat Buddha from his im­mov­able spot. Earth-touch­ing Buddha, as the im­age is tra­di­tion­ally known, is stead­fast in his de­vo­tion, call­ing on the earth to bear wit­ness. It is fit­ting, then, that Con­nell’s own three­d­i­men­sional de­pic­tions of Buddha are of­ten made us­ing ma­te­ri­als found just be­neath one’s feet, or from deep in the earth, and sit in their place as nat­u­rally as boul­ders by a stream.

Con­nell’s legacy in New Mexico is ap­par­ent in a new mono­graph pub­lished by Ra­dius Books, John Con­nell:

Works 1965-2009, the most com­plete col­lec­tion of his sculp­ture and paint­ings in print. “If you look in the sec­tion of the book, the ’60s and ’70s, you see a lot of Buddha things, and that de­vel­oped all the way through his ca­reer,” Con­nell’s son Bren­dan Con­nell told Pasatiempo. “Prob­a­bly some­thing like 60 per­cent of his work has some re­la­tion­ship to some kind of a Bud­dhist theme, even if it’s not quite ob­vi­ous from the ti­tles.” In ad­di­tion to the mono­graph, an ex­hi­bi­tion of his works ti­tled Earth-Touch­ing Buddha is on view at Peters Projects as part of the gallery’s se­ries of solo shows, Pro­gramme One, which opened on June 12. A look through Con­nell’s three-di­men­sional pieces makes it plain why the ti­tle is fit­ting. Not only are Buddha fig­ures and re­lated deities of­ten the sub­ject, but there is an earthy, grounded qual­ity to the work. Many of Con­nell’s fig­u­ra­tive sculp­tures, though ab­stract, seem rooted in place, like fig­ures from the Bud­dhist pan­theon who re­main un­touched by the ef­forts of their ad­ver­saries to dis­rupt them from their tran­scen­dent goals.

Bird sculp­tures on view in the ex­hibit, a com­mon sub­ject for the artist, have talons that are too large for their bod­ies. Feet, too big for the bod­ies they sup­port, can also be seen in his de­pic­tions of hu­man forms, lend­ing some of his gnarly bronzes and mixed media works a cer­tain bulk and weight. “Part of that with the sculp­tures was a tech­ni­cal thing to get them to stand,” Con­nell said. “He was at some mu­seum where there were a num­ber of sculp­tures by Gi­a­cometti, and he no­ticed that Gi­a­cometti had done the same thing, hav­ing these fig­ures with very large feet. He re­al­ized it was some­thing sculp­tors have been deal­ing with for a very long time. There is also some sym­bol­ism there, def­i­nitely.”

Con­nell first moved to Santa Fe for a brief spell in 1967 af­ter liv­ing in Berke­ley and work­ing at San Fran­cisco’s renowned City Lights Book­store, where he fell in with Beat po­ets and writ­ers such as Allen Gins­burg, Lawrence Fer­linghetti, and Neal Cas­sady. “Orig­i­nally his as­pi­ra­tion was to be a writer, and he wrote nu­mer­ous nov­els that were cast aside or thrown away. I’ve got a good body of his writ­ing that, hope­fully, I can get pub­lished some­where,” Con­nell said. John Con­nell, who was a mem­ber of the Art Stu­dents League in New York in the early 1960s, most likely en­coun­tered his first real ex­pe­ri­ences with Bud­dhism while liv­ing in the Bay Area. “I re­call him men­tion­ing that he would read books by Alan Watts and peo­ple like that dur­ing down­time at City Lights. I be­lieve at some point he also stud­ied at the San Fran­cisco Zen Cen­ter.” Con­nell met his wife, Stella, also em­ployed at City Lights, who in­tro­duced him to the North Beach po­ets and soon, his own po­etry be­gan ap­pear­ing along­side theirs in Beat­i­tude Mag­a­zine, a sem­i­nal Beat pub­li­ca­tion founded by po­ets Bob Kauf­man, Gins­burg, and oth­ers.

In her es­say “Birds & Bud­dhas,” which ac­com­pa­nies the mono­graph, au­thor and cu­ra­tor MaLin

Wil­son-Pow­ell sug­gests that Con­nell’s in­ter­est in Eastern art, thought, and phi­los­o­phy be­gan much ear­lier when, as a boy, his grand­mother brought him a pair of prints from her trav­els in China. “One of the prints I’ve ac­tu­ally got in my house,” Con­nell said. “I be­lieve it’s of an em­press of China. The other one is pos­si­bly a Ja­panese print. It might have been some­thing Bud­dhist-themed, if mem­ory serves me cor­rectly. I think it did have some kind of an in­flu­ence.”

“Art writ­ers have regularly de­scribed Con­nell’s black, some­times des­ic­cated sculp­tures as de­monic or apoc­a­lyp­tic, and they’re not all wrong,” writes Wil­son-Pow­ell, al­lud­ing to hu­man­ity’s self-de­struc­tive ten­denCon­nell’s cies in the 20th cen­tury. But aes­thetic in­ter­ests seemed to tend more to­ward de­scrib­ing a vul­gar­ity that masks “Buddha na­ture” than in pre­sent­ing hu­man­ity in its ug­li­ness. His sculp­tures ap­pear to be born from a cu­ri­ous mix of geo­met­ric, lin­ear form, and the raw, or­ganic forms of na­ture. Us­ing ma­te­ri­als such as sand, wood, pa­per, and tar, his fig­ures are dark, knobby, and un­re­fined. His works on pa­per are also ren­dered in dusky hues with min­i­mal use of color. “Some­body sees some­thing that’s black, and they au­to­mat­i­cally have a neg­a­tive con­no­ta­tion,” said Con­nell, who is the ex­ecu­tor of his fa­ther’s es­tate and was in­volved in the de­velthe op­ment of the mono­graph and ex­hibit at Peters Projects. “I’m here in Cal­i­for­nia re­pair­ing some sculp­tures at The Hess Col­lec­tion. They were men­tion­ing this, too. One thing I told them was that I re­mem­ber help­ing my dad with a show in Ari­zona,

The Raft Pro­ject, with all these black fig­ures. One of the peo­ple on the board of di­rec­tors at the mu­seum where it was shown was an African-Amer­i­can. His take on it was com­pletely dif­fer­ent be­cause he didn’t see the black fig­ures as neg­a­tive at all. The way he was in­ter­act­ing with them was dif­fer­ent than the white peo­ple. I think peo­ple look at some­thing that’s black and au­to­mat­i­cally think it rep­re­sents some­thing dark. That could have some­thing to do with our per­cep­tion of col­ors.” The Raft Pro­ject, a col­lab­o­ra­tion from the late 1980s and early ’90s with artist Eu­gene New­mann, was inspired by Théodore Géri­cault’s 19th-cen­tury com­po­si­tion The Raft of the Me­dusa. Ref­er­ences to art history come into play in sev­eral of Con­nell’s works, such as Heads From the House of a Deaf Man (Af­ter Goya). In ad­di­tion, he crafted nu­mer­ous de­pic­tions of bod­hisattvas like Kuan Yin, a fig­ure as­so­ci­ated with com­pas­sion in sev­eral Eastern mytho­log­i­cal and re­li­gious tra­di­tions; Man­jusri, a pop­u­lar, ven­er­ated de­ity in Ti­betan Bud­dhism; and sev­eral ren­der­ings of seated Bud­dhas and hu­man forms emerg­ing from roughly fash­ioned lo­tus blos­soms. One paint­ing even shows a pair of yetis, hu­man­like beasts said to in­habit re­mote re­gions of the Hi­malayas.

Con­nell also re­tained an in­ter­est in work­ing with the earth di­rectly in his art and in other are­nas, as well. “Prob­a­bly from the ’60s all the way through the rest of his life, wher­ever he lived, he cul­ti­vated a gar­den,” ac­cord­ing to Con­nell. This in­ter­est is re­flected in a se­ries of ’80s-era sculp­tures called

Sinerota the Gar­dener. In the 1960s, Con­nell re­lied on store-bought paints, but be­gan in­cor­po­rat­ing tar and sand into his work in the decades that fol­lowed. Even his late paint­ings con­tain pig­ments mixed with dirt, an idea that came about af­ter a visit from friend and fel­low artist Glo­ria Graham. “We were liv­ing out in La Cienega. There was a creek bed by the house. Glo­ria used a lot of ce­ram­ics. She no­ti­fied my dad that some of the dirt around there was ac­tu­ally clay. He started mix­ing that in with his col­ors. That hear­kens back to some ear­lier stuff; in the early ’80s, he was look­ing into mak­ing his own paints. He had a cou­ple of very old Chi­nese man­u­als on paint­ing that de­scribed dif­fer­ent paints and a lot of them used nat­u­ral min­er­als. He started pur­chas­ing black iron ox­ide, red iron ox­ide, and mak­ing his own mixes.”

Many of Con­nell’s works on pa­per ap­pear wholly nonob­jec­tive at first glance, but grad­u­ally, fig­u­ra­tive el­e­ments emerge. “If you open the book to page 10, the paint­ing there is Taoist Tem­ple in the Moun­tains (af­ter Tung Yuan). The orig­i­nal is a fa­mous Chi­nese paint­ing. A lot of the pain­ters like Tung Yuan were court pain­ters, but there were some who were a part of this tra­di­tion of wan­der­ing off to the moun­tains and be­com­ing fa­mous cal­lig­ra­phers and pain­ters. Their styles now are prob­a­bly con­sid­ered tra­di­tional, but back then they were con­sid­ered pretty rad­i­cal. Dad’s work looks very ab­stract, but once you no­tice what it is, it’s not that ab­stract. There’s a lot of in­flu­ence in his work in terms of ma­te­rial and also style.”

Many of Con­nell’s fig­u­ra­tive sculp­tures seem rooted in place, like fig­ures from the Bud­dhist pan­theon who re­main un­touched by the ef­forts of their ad­ver­saries to dis­rupt them from their tran­scen­dent goals.

John Con­nell: Man Sleep­ing, late 1980s, pa­per, wire, wood, tar, and sand; op­po­site page,

Six-Armed Aval­okites­vara, early 1990s, pa­per, wire, wood, wax, and pig­ments; im­ages cour­tesy es­tate of John Con­nell

The artist with his son John in his stu­dio, circa 1990; photo Blair Clark

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