Being With: Andrea Keys Connell

…And Then The Wind Blew…, red sculpture clay, underglaze, glaze, wood, castors, fired to cone 1, 2015. Photo: Amber Langston.

“Being With,” a solo exhibition of works by Andréa Keys Connell, was on view in the gallery at Western Kentucky University (www.wku.edu/art/gallery_info.php) in Bowling Green, Kentucky, earlier this year. The gallery is situated between the fine art department and the folk studies and anthropology department, at an intersection where expression, history, myth, religion, and so many of the things that make us human collide. Also a discreet space, trafficked mostly by students and professors, it was an ideal testing ground for an accomplished educator and artist who is mid-stream in a new undertaking.

Being With, red sculpture clay, oil paint, stains, fired to cone 1, 2014.

Following Connell’s work over the last decade, from the Florida Holocaust Museum in Tampa to The Clay Studio in Philadelphia, one also traces her search for “the individual in the oversimplified and glorified portrait . . . and the . . . reality in the fairy tale, figurine, monument, statue, and archetype.” Connell’s work has been a questioning of social ideologies and idealization, a quest manifest in figurative sculpture: mute characters, nearly detached, possibly trapped, almost forlorn, in the overwhelming silences and desperate traumas of suspended animation. The world of Connell’s figures is saturated with emotional intensity, psychic, and metaphorical. Grimm, too, perhaps, though her characters are always kept from the brink of descent by small glimmers of hope. In the tempest of her figurative sculpture, these little stirrings of life—the curling of toes or the delicate opening of a palm—are sanctuaries for an irrepressible spirit and innate goodness that have been tested but still endure. These are brief, yet powerful and redemptive moments that are never fully lost in the artist’s ambiguous renderings of the human form.

The works in Being With, a mix of two pieces from 2014 and two made just prior to the exhibition, are, in contrast to much of Connell’s oeuvre, more realistically described. Having previously worked with a largely monochromatic palette of commercial paints, the quality of which created the illusion of still-malleable, unfired clay, the artist has now boldly moved into variegated oil paints (2014) and polychrome glaze (2015). With the growing specificity of these descriptions, Connell coaxes her figures out of allegory and imagination, and closer to the living reality of the present moment.

Untitled, red sculpture clay, wood, castors, fired to cone 1, 2015. Photo: Amber Langston.

Though seemingly more defined in their physical presence, Connell’s work still lives in liminality. The figures, even those more familiar historical personages such as Mary Magdalene and Saint Francis of Assisi, exist as much or more in myth and lore than they ever will in history. The glazed figure too is more fairy tale and fantasy than fallible. And yet there is the disturbance of a strong wind disheveling her, and tossing sheep and birds about her like rose-petals. It is a simple and concrete event in our world, this gusting, disrupting the comfort and convention of the narrative that we expect in her world, the taleworld. The life-size figure is displayed on a dolly-like platform that makes the event all the more comic and troubling. To imagine the already animated figure being blown out of the gallery on her wheels is almost slapstick. But there is a crippling uncertainty in the tumult as the woman unexpectedly and instantly becomes an unwilling ark, the desperate life-raft that has appeared in so much of Connell’s earlier work. Such moments—swift, strategic, layered, and rife with foreboding tension—are the artist’s signature, and they are visible in everything from her humorous yet gruesome stylizations to her adept but unpretentious handling of the material.

Entering the exhibition space, an inaccessible, seated figure looks down from a staircase. The remaining three figures face center. From this vantage point there is an obvious disparity. The two painted figures from 2014 both tend to withdraw into the architecture of the gallery. The two newer figures, glazed, unglazed, and thus opposite in the treatment of their surfaces, have been put on the frontline opposite each other, more independent there in their own open, almost desolate spaces. Yet it is these two figures that are the most obscured, their faces and heads hidden, consumed in stylizations of windswept, tousled hair.

Exhibition overview, 2015. Photo: Amber Langston.

In different ways, all of the figures appear to retreat into their corners, their worlds, or into themselves, their vulnerability, and maybe the artist’s as well, guarded by the restraint that is so palpable in an otherwise intimate space. Then one looks up again at the seated figure, its left hand making the gesture of anointment and the right with its fingers betrayingly crossed, and one wonders if the figures below have simply conceded to judgment and reproach, one of them, the most ornate and garish, to expulsion.

It is not difficult to imagine the four figures in dialog with each other, and the theater of Connell’s work has always been essential to its interpretation and meaning. In this particular act, the artist, her sculpted figures, and the viewer are all participating in, or witnessing, a moment of transformation, briefly fixed in time, with an uncertain outcome. The work is supple with tension, lingering on moments that are never fully resolved, and never fully revealed. This is classic Connell in a newer idiom—a changing language between surface and sentience, humor and heartache, narrative and nascence. These works are still weighty, well calibrated, complex, and compelling, but they are being pushed into an unforeseen future and, perhaps, toward a brighter and more beautiful beacon of hope.

the author Anthony E. Stellaccio is a freelance scholar and artist trained in both fine art and folklore. He is a member of the International Academy of Ceramics, the American Ceramic Circle, and the American Folklore Society. His past appointments include the Smithsonian, National Museum of African Art and the Lithuanian Art Museum in Vilnius.

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