Brendan O’Connell, The ‘Walmart Painter,’ Turns Abstract
One of Brendan O’Connell’s foot-square paintings currently on display in Washington Depot.
By Robert Ayers
You wouldn’t normally think of going to a real estate office to see an art exhibit. But whether or not you are looking to buy a place in Litchfield County, you will find a visit to The Matthews Group in Washington Depot well worth it. There’s art there you shouldn’t miss.
Brendan O’Connell, the artist who made this wildly varied array of small abstract paintings, turns out to be one of the most interesting characters you are ever likely to run into, not least because he enjoys a healthy celebrity for making a totally different kind of art.
Applauded in media as diverse as USA Today, NPR, The New Yorker and The Colbert Report, O’Connell is the successful painter of brightly colored pictures of the interior of Walmart stores. But in truth, he never intended to be a painter at all. In fact, it was to break the tedium of trying to write a novel that he first decided to have a crack at drawing. “I was 22 and I picked up a pencil and taught myself to draw,” is how he remembers it now.
By 1996 he was showing in New York City as a fully fledged abstract painter — in fact, all of his shows until 2006 were abstract — but he found himself frustrated. “It seemed as if only five people in New York knew the difference between good and bad abstract art,” he recalls. “My career was in the toilet.”
He met his wife, the celebrated landscape painter Emily Buchanan (whose watercolor was featured in the White House’s 2014 holiday card) in 1997, and they moved to Litchfield County a couple of years later. It was when his daughter was born that the change came, though it came indirectly. He decided to switch from oil to acrylic paint because he didn’t want the baby breathing in toxic fumes, and in order to get the hang of this new material he started doing portraits of great artists he admired. “I was a closet figurative painter,” he says with a smile. Then he did a series of paintings of people doing routine day-to-day tasks, and then, to discover new source material, “Someone suggested I follow somebody out into the world” and photograph what they did. The very first day he found himself inside a Walmart.
One of O’Connell’s celebrated Walmart paintings.
O’Connell is happy to admit that he happened upon his most successful art by chance. It makes a refreshing change to encounter an artist who doesn’t imagine that everything in one’s work stems from conscious decisions. Contrasting his attitude with Andy Warhol’s conception of the studio as a factory, he explains, “I think of the studio as being more like a garden: you put different plants together and they cross fertilize, just like you put a portrait next to an abstract painting and they serve one another.” Instead of mass production, he pursues constant experiment and rule breaking.
So it comes as no surprise to discover that he started these small abstract paintings at about the same time as the first Walmart paintings. He talks of them as a laboratory of color, and it would seem that he uses them to try out ideas, but it’s clear that they have their own rationale as well. He isn’t interested in giving them titles, and he rarely records the date they were made, almost as if this information might obscure their purely pictorial logic.
The artist, second from right, with Alec Baldwin, Emily Buchanan and actor Josh Charles at his NYC show.
But in terms of how they are painted — what colors he uses, or what shapes, or how the paint is applied, or whether the paint edges are hard or soft or straight or curved or wobbly — the possibilities are endless. No two of these paintings are even nearly the same. He even has the little square panels machine cut so that they can be hung with any of their four sides at the top. He only regards them as finished when they work equally well in all four directions, and he is happy to let their owners decide which they prefer.
Perhaps it’s the energy that derives from this sense of endless possibility that makes this show of paintings so uplifting. That and the fact that they seem to offer a more private view of how a famous artist works, even when things are turned on their head. Smiling at the irony, O’Connell puts it like this: “Now I’m a closet abstract painter.”
Abstract Work by Iconic American Painter Brendan O’Connell
On view through the end of May.
The Matthews Group
4 Green Hill Road, Washington Depot, CT
Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday - Saturday; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday.
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Ashton Hawkins & Johnnie Moore: A Collected Life At Auction
Moore and Hawkins.
By Jamie Larson
Auctions at the laudable Stair Galleries in Hudson often capture specific artistic moments or movements. On display now and up for sale this Saturday is the sum of an artistic life steeped in style, history and love.
The personal collection of Ashton Hawkins and Johnnie Moore spans over 50 years of collecting, including Hawkins’ 32-year tenure at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the fruitful pairing of the couple’s curatorial eyes after they met and began collecting together in the 1990s. This is an excellent auction for experienced and novice collectors alike, as both style and price vary greatly.
“The collection speaks about us,” Hawkins says. “Every piece tells a story. I knew many of these artists.”
“Henry Hudson Runs the Half Moon Aground, Gentrification of Hudson Begins,” Mark Beard.
I think we have a shared aesthetic,” Moore said. “We both have a great love of bronze, for instance, and I like to think we are both very eclectic and smart in our interests.”
Hawkins began collecting art as a teenager and maintained a long and important relationship with the art world through his legal career as Assistant Secretary of the Board of Trustees and Counsel to the Met from 1969 until his retirement in 2001. He traveled the world, socializing on behalf of the Museum with artists including Andy Warhol, Richard Avedon, David Hockney and Georgia O’Keeffe, as well as Jackie Onassis, Lillian Hellman, Jane Engelhard and Brooke Astor. Hawkins has served as chairman of the Dia Center for the Arts and the Alliance for the Arts. He currently sits on the Boards of the World Monuments Fund, the Municipal Art Society, and the New York Studio School, and he serves as a special consultant and secretary of Christie’s American Advisory Board.
The variety of Hawkins’ worldly experience is explicit at Stair; there are historical Egyptian and classical bronze figures, as well as whimsical modern paintings and sculpture. Colin Stair, owner of Stair Auctioneers & Appraisers and friend of Hawkins and Moore, said he had been thinking hard about how to characterize the theme of the couple’s collection, which, while apparent to the eye, eludes definition.
A T-shirt signed by Andy Warhol and gifted to Hawkins by the artist at a dinner party.
“It’s nature,” Stair decided. “Nature in a lot of different ways: the male form, fish and animals, color and shape.”
Though there are certainly exceptions on display, they serve to accent Stair’s point rather than contradict it.
“As two people with different tastes, we often wander off at art shows and come back together,” Moore says. “We surprise each other when we’re interested in the same things. We’ve been lucky; our tastes have come together in a way, and we hope people will enjoy that about the exhibition.”
In advance of the auction, Stair held a private viewing of the work last Saturday. The event, like the auction, was as much in honor of Hawkins and Moore’s artistic life together as it was in the collection itself.
Classic to Contemporary: The Collection of Ashton Hawkins and Johnnie Moore
Saturday, September 27 at 11 a.m.
Stair Auctioneers & Appraisers
549 Warren Street, Hudson, NY
At the private viewing:
Stair Galleries owner Colin Stair with Lisa Thomas and Sutter Antiques owner Alfons Sutter; Interior architect Juan Carretelera and US Editor for The Independent in London David Usborne.
Moore and Hawkins; A sampling of the impressive collection of bronze figures up for auction on Saturday.
Attorney Meghan Davis, Kay Toll and the author of an upcoming book on the history of the restoration of Olana Dorthy Heyl; Wingo Inc.‘s Doug Wingo and Tim Legg with Stair Galleries’ Erika Clark.
Rodney DeJung and Randy Hinz; Steve Byckiewicz, John Sare and Bob Macleod.
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BUMP at Basilica Hudson
By Lisa Green
Try this, and see what happens: Touch a dinosaur skeleton in the American Museum of Natural History. You might not get arrested, but you’d have security all over you faster than you can say Tyrannosaurus rex.
So maybe don’t. But next week, at Basilica Hudson, you will be encouraged to put your hands all over the bones of three massive marine mammals in a whale-sized interactive exhibition called BUMP. You won’t recognize the anatomy of the whales — the bones will be configured in an abstract way — but really, how many other present-day animals would have bones this big?
The hands-on whale exhibit is the brainchild of Frank and Dan DenDanto, brothers who grew up in the Hudson Valley. Dan is a biologist and whale researcher in Maine, and Frank is a set and lighting designer in Bloomingburg, New York. Back in 2008, Dan was working on a whale installation at the Nantucket Historical Society and called in the services of Frank, who had experience with rigging. The image of the skeleton swinging in the wind left an impression on Frank, and later, when he saw a pile of animals (that’s what people in the business call skeletons) in Dan’s backyard, he suggested creating a mobile. A really big one.
And so the project – not necessarily a biology exhibit, but an arts one – was installed at the Institute for Contemporary Art at the Maine School of Arts in Portland, where Frank was formerly a light designer. After a highly successful installation there (called “visually stunning” by the college), the bones needed to migrate to a new space.
“I’ve been trying to do a whale project in Hudson since 2008,” says Frank. “I was working with StageWorks/Hudson and interested in the historical significance of whales in the community.” They contacted Melissa Auf der Maur, founder and creative director of Basilica Hudson, about bringing the skeletons down to the Basilica’s cavernous space. They couldn’t have found a better partner in terms of mission and artistic goals.
Auf der Maur picks up the story. “Last year we exhibited a lifesize glow-in-the-dark replica of a whale skeleton. Since then, it’s been my passion to have an annual exhibit to honor the whaling history,” she says. “Luckily, we read all the inquiries that come in to our general mailbox. When the DenDanto’s proposal came in, I was interested right away.”
Basilica Hudson. Photo by Matt Charland.
It’s an obvious fit. Basilica Hudson has huge spaces to fill, and endeavors to program out-of-the-ordinary experiences. BUMP offers the only whale skeleton in the public arena you can touch — at least in this country. And this one is a reflection of the “epic and eclectic history of Hudson,” Auf der Maur explains. Basilica Hudson itself is built on a landfill that was the historic port. “BUMP allows us to look at part of Hudson’s history through a contemporary reality,” she says.
The bones will be suspended at eye level in Basilica’s Main Hall. Once the bones are touched, they are set in motion, causing shadows to dance around the space. Adding to the atmosphere will be the soundscape, a combination of oceanic noise, overlaid on top of whale “songs.”
Black Sea Hotel. Photo by Jim Roberts.
The DenDantos will be present at the opening reception on August 23. A closing party on August 29 will feature music performances curated by Lea Bertucci, an interdisciplinary artist who works with sound installations, and will include Black Sea Hotel — an a capella Balkan women’s trio whose breathy harmonies have a similarly haunting quality to the whale music in the exhibit — plus Charlie Looker and Patrick Higgins.
“BUMP gives us an opportunity to reflect the history that made this building and this town,” says Auf der Maur. No doubt, it will be an immersive experience involving sight, sound and touch — and wonder.
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At Shakespeare & Co., A ‘Midsummer’ And All That Jazz
Briana Maia, Michael F. Toomey and Atalanta Seigel. Photo by Kevin Sprague.
By Jeremy D. Goodwin
Jazz is a music of possibilities. So too is the music of theater.
Even in the midst of a long run, each performance of a given production is meant to rise anew from the mysterious stew of creative possibilities. There’s the sense, even if illusory, that the action could break this way or that way, that the resolution to the onstage events is in doubt. Even with the much-studied words of Shakespeare, the best performers emulate the ineffable kismet of improvisation.
Enter the production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream now onstage at Shakespeare & Company. Director Tony Simotes’ inspired conceit is that the enchanted happenings of that play could find full voice when set in an early-20th century New Orleans milieu. It turns out the faded, mysterious, deeply soulful vibe conjured by this vision of New Orleans fits in with the wild journey of Oberon and Puck, Helena and Hermia and all the rest, as snugly as a Harmon mute in the bell of a trumpet.
Johnny Lee Davenport and Merritt Janson. Photo by Kevin Sprague.
Music is everywhere in this production, from the Rude Mechanicals forming a crack band to express their sadness at the disappearance of their compatriot Bottom, to a stomping rendition of “I’ll Fly Away” that begins in the theater lobby. Composer and musical director Alex Sovronsky (who is also onstage as Snug) does much to evoke the sound of New Orleans jazz, and Barbara Allen’s choreography helps turn Theseus’s court into a debauched ballroom.
Dangling Spanish moss and curling tree limbs overlap with man-made light fixtures in Travis George’s set design, creating a sense of the creeping influence of the mysterious woods not far from the orderly court. Period-appropriate costumes designed by Deborah A. Brothers work in harmony with Simotes’ vision.
Simotes, of course, knows from Midsummer; he played Puck in S&Co.’s first-ever production, on the lawn of The Mount back in 1978. And the play has continued to loom large in the history of the company — though this is only its second turn indoors at the Tina Packer Playhouse (nee Founders’ Theatre), following a 2007 version that felt a little “off-brand,” featuring several company newcomers who have not been heard from since.
Rocco Sisto, Colby Lewis, Cloteal L. Horne, David Joseph, and Michael F. Toomey. Photo by Kevin Sprague.
As usual, the success of the play really turns on the four lovers who are set loose in the woods, changing their romantic affections under the influence of a fairy king’s magic. The quartet here is formed by Kelly Galvin and David Joseph, familiar faces who make the most of this featured turn, and S&Co. first-timers Cloteal L. Horne and Colby Lewis. The petite-ness of Galvin’s frame helps fuel the hilarity of a well-executed, acrobatic sequence in which she tosses around Lewis, who plays a sapping but caddish Demetrius. Joseph shows fantastic comedic chops, though Horne’s sledgehammer-y approach suggests she’s still learning the subtleties of massaging the humor in Shakespeare’s text.
Rocco Sisto brings a suitably regal air to Oberon, the fairy king. Merritt Janson has winningly played some of Shakespeare’s greatest female roles in this theatre (Desdemona, Rosalind, Viola); here she is a calm, confident Titania. Michael Toomey, whose work at S&Co. and with the Split Knuckle Theater (of which he’s a co-founder) has made him the troupe’s leading clown, is a loud and silly Puck, even if he doesn’t cut loose as much as one might expect.
Photo by Kevin Sprague
The world-weary countenance and achy-bone movements Johnny Lee Davenport gives to Bottom lend an air of pathos, and most of his cohorts among the Rude Mechanicals are also of a certain age. Their subplot feels uncharacteristically played-down here, especially the climactic play-within-a-play which can otherwise pull a production off course by way of prolonged chaos. You kind of want your money’s worth when it comes to the onstage death of Bottom-as-Pyramus, but Davenport doesn’t milk it. Instead, the enduring image from his performance is the beautiful moment when a leftover token from Titania reminds Bottom of the supposed “dream” in which he won her affections.
Along the fluid line between waking life and sleep (or, as the play has it, “fairy time”) lie infinite possibilities; you can see Bottom glimpse one of those possibilities, and then discard it. It’s deliciously heartbreaking.
Helena — not the character, but a friend’s precocious daughter, then five years old — once described a Louis Armstrong solo as “happy and sad together.” That’s also the sweet spot of a good Midsummer. This production aims for that note, and hits it.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Tina Packer Playhouse at Shakespeare & Company
70 Kemble Street, Lenox, MA
Now through August 30
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The Clark Unveils Its Latest Piece Of Art — Its Own Campus
By Jeremy D. Goodwin
Have you been to The Clark lately?
Unless you work there, the chances are the answer is “no.” It’s been closed since March, and the heart of its famed collection of French Impressionist paintings — including those luscious Renoirs everyone loves to stop by and say hello to from time to time — have been out of town since 2011, circling the globe on a tour that reached from Shanghai to Fort Worth, Texas. (Of course, special exhibitions like last summer’s orgy of newly acquired Winslow Homer paintings, and that rock-star-popular show featuring Picasso and Degas, have provided plenty of cause to visit in the meantime.)
Now the wait is over. The Clark is back, and back with gusto. On Friday, July 4, this jewel of Williamstown will open the doors on the long-anticipated expansion, including an uber-elegant new building designed by renowned Japanese architect Tadao Ando. The sleek, airy, light-filled building houses additional space for special exhibitions, and a full-service visitor center including a café and museum shop.
It’s hard to believe the spot where it stands used to be the site of a parking lot and facilities plant, tucked away behind the buildings that were accessed by the public.
“This is a place where we had our chillers and cooling tower and all kinds of grounds equipment,” associate director Tom Loughman says on a walk-through of the grounds that attracted upwards of 100 members of the press. He stands in the light-filled ground floor of the new building, in a room with windows on all four sides and a view of the stunning new water feature —three terraced pools — right outside. “It was a not-nice place. But it had been determined by the master plan as being the key, the fulcrum spot on the campus.”
The the new terrace offers a look at another masterpiece—the view. Photo: Jeremy D. Goodwin
That is fully borne out by the new building and the way it ties together the rest of the grounds. A new access road leads arriving visitors to the long, low-set building, with most of the new features hidden from view. Then a short passage opens dramatically onto a spacious terrace lined with young willow trees, and a view of the pools. From there, one can see The Clark’s two older buildings nearby, and a grand view of a hill patrolled by the odd cow. Back inside the new building, a long, glass-enclosed passageway leads to the main building, offering expansive views on all sides.
Though the addition of hiking trails and the Lunder Center at Stone Hill in 2009 extended The Clark’s footprint into the surrounding woodland, visitors who limited themselves to the main collection or the research library had little chance to interact with the gorgeous surroundings. No longer.
“Our charge was to understand the land well and understand how they should curate it, the same way they curate their art,” landscape architect Gary Hilderbrand says before the press tour, standing on the edge of the largest pool under a brilliant afternoon sky. “A lot of people come here from big, municipal areas, and there isn’t any doubt that when you get a ticket and walk through the door, you have a chance to participate in a landscape that people who live here in the Berkshires walk through every day.”
Maddy Burke-Vigeland, the executive architect, points to the co-mingling of indoor and outdoor experiences in the new setup. Though the art on view is still the star attraction, it now lives in more of a communion with its pastoral surroundings. “Obviously, this can only make The Clark even more of a mecca for not only the art world, but the architecture world and people interested in nature, because this backdrop is so spectacular,” she says.
As for the still-sumptuous building that houses the permanent collection, it’s received a major tune-up — new climate control system, lighting fixtures, a reconsidered floor plan, and even some carefully selected paint colors on the wall will all combine for an experience that is enhanced subtly but distinctly.
“This is a museum that is very well-loved by a lot of people, and we wanted them to return to see the collection and be happy with the presentation, knowing that certain groupings of paintings would remain the same,” says senior curator Richard Rand, who seems fully enamored of the changes. (Put on the spot, he’s even able to identify one new wall color as pavilion blue.) “Many people won’t really know what has changed, but they’ll feel it. They’ll feel it in their bones.”
Courtesy of The Clark
The new exhibition spaces are getting broken in with a collection of Chinese Bronze Age sculpture, on loan from the Shanghai Museum, where The Clark’s traveling Impressionist road show attracted half a million visitors. In August, the new building will strut its stuff with an exhibition featuring some of the vibrant modern art The Clark didn’t have the facilities for before. “Make It New: Abstract Painting From the National Gallery of Art, 1950-1975,” a new exhibition curated in partnership between the two institutions, opens on August 2.
Museum director Michael Conforti has steered the project through various turns in the road, ever since the current master plan was unveiled in 2001. (The re-design concept has been on the table since two years later.)
He sums up the changes with elegant precision — in spirit, not unlike the distinctive touch of architect Ando.
“It’ll be an art-in-nature experience,” Conforti says, “unparalleled with any museum that I can think of.”
Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute
225 South Street in Williamstown
Re-opening July 4 at 1 p.m.