Chuck Connelly artwork returns to Chestnut Hill gallery

Some artists expect you to spend almost as much time reading their wall-mounted artist statements as you do looking at the paintings – and that’s before you ask them about the work.

Pittsburgh native Chuck Connelly, an internationally-known artist whose work is as revered as his behavior is infamous, takes a different approach.

“I don’t think there’s anything I could say that’s any more important than looking at the work,” the notoriously terse Connelly said when asked what themes viewers might extract from his latest show at the Chestnut Hill Gallery, which opened Dec. 1.

Connelly admirers should be prepared for a lot of contradictions. He and Chestnut Hill Gallery Owner and Director Joe Borrelli both emphasize a preference for laid-back art shows – as long as there’s still enough love for the artist to go around.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

“He wants a very low-key show, but you still want to be recognized,” Borrelli said of hosting Connelly’s work.For his part, Connelly appreciates that Borrelli, who first came to him about appearing in the Germantown Avenue gallery about five years ago, isn’t a “high-end salesman.”

But the gravelly-voiced Connelly also said he also hopes visitors will look at the “world-class” paintings and say, “Wow, that’s great, I can’t believe how great it is, and it’s in this little funky gallery.”

A fall from grace

Connelly graduated from Temple University’s Tyler School in 1977 and launched a prolific career.At the top of the New York City art world in the 1980s, he was the inspiration for fictional artist Lionel Dobie, played by Nick Nolte in the 1989 film “New York Stories.” (The film encompassed a trio of narratives from three different directors. Martin Scorsese directed the segment starring Nolte.)

But acerbic comments from Connelly about the film, and the fallout from his struggle with alcoholism, ended the Hollywood honeymoon and left him personally and professionally isolated. “The Art of Failure,” an Emmy-winning HBO documentary that premiered in 2008, took an unvarnished look at the demise of Connelly’s once-meteoric career.

“Right now I don’t have a gallery in the whole world, even though I’ve been all over the world,” he said of his second show in Chestnut Hill in as many years.

But through it all, Connelly has kept working.

“He paints all the time,” Borelli says. “Everything he does is one big emotional response to something…the only thing he’s going to do is paint.”

Swirling skies and cats with pumpkins

Connelly is renowned for his versatility, technique, and volatile vision.

His current show, “Manufactured in Philadelphia” – so named because all the pieces were painted here – began with the selection of 2012’s oil on canvas “Art Factory.”

A black, red-roofed factory’s spiral-striped smokestack belches into an oppressive gray sky, all looming over nearly-empty parking lots. As with many of Connelly’s paintings, the reds glow like hot coals.

Other paintings explore sensual yet inscrutable human figures, kaleidoscopic tangles of brush, swirling Van Gogh-like skies and flowers eternally bursting with the round, rich, slippery texture of wet paint.

And then there’s “Fluffy with Pumpkin,” a still life of a cat and pumpkin featuring Connelly’s own pet.

“You can tell he loves the cat,” Borrelli said. “He paints Fluffy a lot.”

Casual browsers to the gallery can wander in and out without knowing the price of a Connelly painting – the smaller ones currently installed in Chestnut Hill start at $12,000 each, but you have to ask Borrelli for the prices.

Philadelphia vs. New York

Having settled here, Connelly’s feelings on his adopted city are mixed at best. To him, the difference between art patrons in New York and art patrons in Philadelphia is simple: “there aren’t any here.”

He hasn’t sold much work in his new home city.

“They love the arts, but they don’t really love the arts,” he complains. “They don’t even have faith in their own city. I don’t think it’s my job to represent a city that doesn’t support the actual artists that live in it. The less we can say about Philly, the better.”

He does admit that Philadelphia may be an incubator of worthwhile work, but says that “unless New York crumbles off the map,” Philadelphia will never have a significant role in the art world.

But whatever Connelly has to say about this city, he has found a home of sorts in Chestnut Hill.

“That’s the way it should be,” Connelly said of his relaxed relationship with Borrelli and his gallery.

Both men explained that in the New York City art world (where no-one would bat an eye at the prices of Connelly’s paintings), the egos of gallery owners are at least as large as those of the artists, leading to clashes that compromise the artists’ vision.

Connelly said he appreciates the freedom and simplicity of exhibiting in Chestnut Hill, where, despite his railing against local art patrons, buyers are coming out of the woodwork.

For the locals, “Manufactured in Philadelphia” may be an excellent chance to view a world-class artist whose career may be on the rise once more.

Borrelli said there are “rumors” that Connelly’s work will appear at Pittsburgh’s Andy Warhol museum within the next year.

But for now, Connelly’s content to enjoy the show under his own roof. “I’m lucky to have this work in here.”Chuck Connelly’s “Manufactured in Philadelphia” is open at the Chestnut Hill Gallery through Dec. 22.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal