A Queerty Original!

John Connelly Knows His Art

Art fans have no doubt heard the name John Connelly.

The 40-year old curator currently commands quite the cadre of artists, including AA Bronson, Scott Treleaven and Nick Lowe. One would assume that Connelly always felt the aesthetic love, but – as we all know – assuming only brings trouble.

In fact, Connelly originally wanted to be an actor, but found himself distracted by art history, a pursuit that plunged him straight into New York creative pool.

Now, a few years on, Connelly’s 27th street gallery, John Connelly Presents, consistently puts on a good show, like Nao Tsuda’s Tunnel Room, on view until May 10th.

Our pal Justin Conner recently sat down with Connelly to talk artistic evolution, how AIDS affects art today and why Bronson’s butt massages are bomb.

Read all about it, after the jump.

Justin Conner: Let’s start by you telling me a little bit about how got involved in the art world.

John Connelly: I grew up in Baltimore and went to school at Fordham University. I just wanted to be in the city. It was kind of cool because they had a very green, traditional, Gothic sort of campus. But the student body was pretty conservative – there’s a lot of like jocks, and preps, and stuff.

Conner: What were you?

Connelly: What was I? I was a thespian. I had been a thespian in high school, and I was in a production of The Tempest at Fordham, I was coming out then–

Conner: That’s late–later in life.

Connelly: Well, for then it was early. It was a totally different time. I wish it was as easy–not easy, easier–as it seems like it might be today for people in their teens, in high school to come out without fear of being hated, or losing your friends and your family…

Conner: How old are you, now?

Connelly: I turned 40 in March. I was going to say, I was a member of the Fordham Lesbians and Gays, the FLAG association. I also worked part time at the MET. I would spend my breaks looking at artwork in all the different rooms. It was a great way to get to know the museum. Thus, I became interested in art history. I took my first class at Fordham, but then I quickly realized that I wanted to be in a program where I was with visual artists, too, and to take photo classes. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be an artist or not, but I knew I wanted to be in that environment.
[Shane and Creepy Crawly from Scott Treleaven.]
Conner: Was acting ever an option?

Connelly: No! I was a pretty poor actor. (Laughs)

Conner: But that was sort of an introduction to the arts.

Connelly: Yes. Then I heard about SUNY Purchase. You really get what you put into an institution, and SUNY Purchase had a lot of facilities and really creative people and it was close to New York–just about as far as taking the subway from the Bronx, by car. It was the best decision I ever made. It was a great time. That’s where I started taking more art history classes and majored in art history. I did a few internships there and in the city and eventually got a job at a gallery called Stein/Gladstone, which was a collaborative gallery between Barbara Gladstone and Christian Stein. They were one of the first that had the YBA shows, the Young British Artists, like Damien Hirst. Barbara just started showing Matthew Barney, so there was a Matthew Barney group show that we did.

Conner: That’s great.

Connelly: Then I started school at Hunter; I was unemployed again for a while because Gladstone/Stein gallery closed, so I was going to school full-time. And then I saw an ad in the newspaper for a gallery job, and it said “Rosen Gallery.” I was like, “That can’t be Andrea Rosen,” because at that time nobody advertised art jobs in the Times. It was very word of mouth. I wrote on my letter “Andrea Rosen Gallery,” and that was how they whittled down the applicants, because she knew if someone wrote “Andrea Rosen Gallery,” they were familiar with the gallery. Anyway, I went there, and I interviewed and I got the job. I worked there for seven years–started out as a front desk person and labeling slides, and slowly worked up to being one of the directors.

[Who’s Afraid Of Amanda Lear, by Scott Hug.]
Conner: You’re obviously interested in curating, or else you wouldn’t be where you are today…

Connelly: What I like to do the most is curate–it’s like my way of being creative–and I curated a few shows for her at her gallery. But I also started curating shows in other locations, under the name John Connelly Presents, as a sort of nomadic project, a curatorial project. I started doing three-person shows of artists who didn’t have gallery representation in New York, sort of introducing them to the New York audience. I left Andrea Rosen in late 2002/early 2003 and the first full-time show we had was Scott Hugs’ bedroom show, and that was a huge success. It was a good time for a show like that, because I think people were hungry for something a little more intimate.

Conner: So there’s Scott Hug, and also your other artists… Can you just give me a little idea of how you pick your artists – where they come from and what you’re looking for?

Connelly: Well, I like to have sort of an eclectic program, you know? My original goal with the gallery was–and it still is, it’s just harder to do with the larger space–is that every time you walk into the gallery, it feels like a completely different experience. I always get so bored walking into a gallery that has a certain program, and all the artwork looks the same or feels the same, and you never have the sense of sort of surprise or excitement. So early on, I would always encourage the artists to engage the space, to take it over, to change it, wallpaper, rugs, whatever, make it more of an environment if necessary. I really gravitated to artists that were ambitious in that sense, and interested in architecture, installations, film and video. I don’t have a certain criteria in terms of medium.
[Gerald Davis’ E.T. and Grandma.]
Conner: A lot of your artists are young, and some of them are gay. Do you think that’s conscious? People do consider your gallery really, you know- you do represent the gays.

Connelly: (Laughs) Well, I think I have that reputation, and I certainly try to support that community, because I’m part of that community. But it’s not…I get a little worried when people just sort of associate the gallery with that one aspect, because I think it’s important for the program to be well-rounded. As I was saying, I try to make the program eclectic. I’m also proud that my program is known for supporting gay and lesbian artists; I know it’s an honor to have AA Bronson in my program, and having a solo show because he’s so influential–General Idea’s so important. I didn’t mention, but I worked briefly with Felix Gonzalez-Torres at Andrea Rosen when he was still alive, and it was really a thrill. So, you know, historically I think it’s important to continue to support the next generation of gay artists.

Conner: And they’re young, so I think that’s important too. It seems that you’re really trying to foster, or give opportunities to, younger artists that may not have a venue. Do you think we’re having a second wave of Gay Art? I’m thinking about your recent show curated by AA Bronson, “School for Young Shamans,” which evokes the next generation, the new generation of young gay artists who have come up in a post-AIDS world.

Connelly: Well, first, I just want to say I think for sure the evolution of the AIDS epidemic informs a lot of art made by gay artists for the last 30 years. You can see how the work changes in relation to how the AIDS epidemic has changed; the early-to-mid ‘80s was very political and activist-oriented. I think what AA’s saying is that there is this younger generation of artists, and the idea of the “School for Young Shamans” is a little bit tongue-in-cheek. But in a way all artists are shamans, because they’re the bridge between the invisible world and the visible world. I think he’s just being really generous and again, giving a platform to these younger artists that may not have the opportunity otherwise. One of the interesting things about the show is that there’s work that’s pre-AIDS era–early ‘70s portraits which have a completely different relationship to the body and male identity. And then there’s work as recent as 2007, being produced by this next generation. So you saw an evolution in the show itself.
[Artist AA Bronson about to work his magic.]
Conner: I think that much of gay art today reflects a nonchalance about AIDS. Though it may have to do with gays’ sexual practice, it’s almost so tongue-in-cheek or so off-the-cuff that it’s just kind of like becomes something that is not as central to the work or someone’s identity. It’s almost like taking it for granted.

Connelly: I think we’ve gotten to the point where we can look at the work without those sort of glasses of, like, “Oh, this is a gay artist.” It’s taken time for gays to be accepted on different levels in society, and it’s the same with gay artists. It’s like, you know, Jasper Johns and Rauschenberg, they were gay artists too, in the age of Jackson Pollock, when being macho was what that work was all about. So identity’s always wrapped up in different ways.

Conner: When did you first meet AA? How did you get involved with him?

Connelly: You know it’s funny, sometimes I just don’t remember exactly when we first met. But I’d known AA, obviously, just because he has such a striking physical appearance–just seeing him around–and I knew he was a former member of General Idea. And somehow we just met and had a discussion about working together. The first show we did was the butt massage show–actually, “the healer show” is what I should say–two or three years ago. It was actually reviewed in Artforum. It was like, AA has this other persona where he’s actually a licensed massage therapist and healer, and so he was creating this whole body of work that dealt with that. The original plan was to have my gallery function as a parlor or studio where he would give these massages to people by appointment.

Conner: Butt massages?

Connelly: Butt massages.

Conner: Only?

Connelly: That’s his specialty.

(Both laugh)

Conner: Oh sure, that’s his “specialty!”