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 three-dimensional 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 des-cribed 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 tendencies in the 20th century. But Connell’s 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 development of the monograph and the 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 roughlyfashioned 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.” ◀