At first glance, Sean Connaughty resembles a Martha Stewart protégé neck-deep in a messy home-restoration project. The artist's studio is one of the few left in the all-but-abandoned fifth-floor construction zone of the soon-to-be-yuppified Rossmor building in St. Paul's Lowertown. Wearing thick denim jeans, a Black Watch cap, and ageless black work boots, the tall and lanky Connaughty paces in front of his current creation. On his hands, Connaughty wears protective elbow-length blue rubber gloves. He dips a pad of steel wool into a bucket of water and rubs at a panel of wood in front of him, as though removing a bad shade of avocado-green paint from the kitchen wall. He moves his scrubbing hand from one spot, peers closely at what his work has wrought, then rubs at another spot a few inches to the left, and so on.
"I'm trying to create depth by subtracting into the positive space in one area and into the negative space in another area," Connaughty explains with a typical level of inscrutability.
Sean Connaughty deserves honorary membership in the shrugging day laborers' hall of fame. His responses to direct questions are about as oblique as your typical road-crew flagman's on a rural highway. And no wonder: Here's a rundown of a typical day for the 37-year-old artist. Up at 4:00 a.m. or so each day, he clocks in every morning at a Minneapolis bakery where he earns his daily keep. After a full shift of heating the ovens and mixing, kneading, proofing, and baking bread, Connaughty takes a brief nap and then moves over to his studio.
Here, Connaughty's process of painting is as rigorous and demanding as concocting any nut-laden Christmas stollen. (The fruits of his recent labors can be seen through January 4, 2004 at the Soo Visual Art Center in Minneapolis.) He first covers a dining-room table-sized wood panel with up to 20 layers of gesso, an acrylic-based paintlike material that's used to prepare surfaces. He sands the gesso to a glasslike smoothness--"Here," he says in his studio, "touch this and tell me that's not smooth" (I agree; it is very smooth). And he paints over the glassy surface with a thin layer of black oil paint.
Then, while the paint is still wet, he works stuff--of late mostly flowers and leaves and other plant materials--into the surface. He covers the plant-infused panel with plastic, puts the whole mess on the floor, and walks on it with bare feet. Once the paint is dried, Connaughty peels away the bulk of the plant material, and then starts to manipulate the image, rubbing away paint based on how he reacts to the random markings. Needless to say, watching such a creation process would leave the Old Masters baffled at what the art of painting has come to.
So, why paint in such a roundabout and tangled manner?
"Good question," Connaughty says after a pause. "I've always thought about painting backwards. Even if I was working additively I was thinking subtractively. It's just natural for me to work that way. It's important to me that I--" he struggles for a moment to find the right words, "...that I have a random field to begin with and somehow I'm allowing images to emerge spontaneously without so much thought."
While other painters work like bricklayers--placing layer upon layer of paint to build up an image--Connaughty follows the strategy of a demolition laborer. If that technique weren't unconventional enough, the artist's use of color bucks most standards of beauty. Though in the past he has used other colors--mostly earth tones on very large, abstract paintings--Connaughty is currently using only black paint.
"I use a limited palette," he says, "to simplify and keep the focus on form. The process allows me to access images more easily without other concerns."
In between the dip-and-scrub movements of Connaughty's "painting" process, he talks about his work as a musician, which also follows its own off course. He sticks several different CDs of his work into his studio's boom box and plays a track or two. One CD, of his group Vortex Navigation Company, is mostly jazzy, ambient-sound stuff. Connaughty sings and plays wailing, echoing guitar. Another CD is a recording of him playing in a slow, folksy style, singing softly about an imagined road accident.
"I am lying by the roadside picking daisies," he sings. "I am lying by the roadside kissing dirt. I am lying by the roadside watering the tansies with my vital fluids."
"It's vocal improvisation," Connaughty explains in his studio, his back to me and his nose nearly pressed to his current painting. "I'm making it up in the moment, which is a pretty weird thing to do. I usually end up telling stories."
The song was recorded at Blacklock Nature Sanctuary in the town of Moose Lake, where, during a month-long fellowship last summer, Connaughty discovered his current technique. In the past, Connaughty had painted on a series of nine 4 x 8 panels with large palmetto fronds, which he would later attach. One large, 36-foot-long abstract work created in this style rests against a nearby wall of his studio.
"I was originally going to do a large-scale piece," Connaughty says of his time at Blacklock. "But I decided I didn't feel like going through that right now. I think I needed something to discover. And I love plants, so it was sort of a natural progression. The idea of making impressions and getting delineated details was beautiful and fascinating."
On the wall, his current painting looks like a cross between a hazy jungle landscape and dozens of overlapping Rorschach tests. (For what it's worth, I see a bunch of screaming monkeys.) "Each painting has individual character to it based on how the impression comes off," Connaughty says. "What I'm doing that day, what I've been thinking about. The process of choosing is important to me. If I'm not choosing, then I feel it loses its impact.
"It's important for me to be in the moment when I'm working. It's like improv. You have to be present, paying attention. Solving these things is like solving a massive math problem. I have to be very intuitive to make a successful painting."
Choosing the outcome of the picture in this fashion means Connaughty often discovers images in the same way that prehistoric cave painters may have seen the outlines of animals in rock formations. And in fact, animals make regular appearances in his paintings, as is evident from some of the titles ("Chimp," for instance, and a painting called "Mr. Ed Lived in a State of Grace").
Other times he may see shapes suggested by the plant forms. Connaughty will leave these figures alone or highlight them to make a jungle-landscape image or a wild crisscrossing mass of swipes and marks not unlike a Jackson Pollock canvas. (A painting called "Bag o' Sticks" is a good example of this.)
His current piece is a subtler affair. As he rubs, I can see he is playing with the varying shades of gray--near-black to white--in order to create a complex and moody image.
"It's really beautiful when you get into it and look at it," Connaughty says. "Sometimes I let the plants dictate the outcome. But sometimes I try not to get too precious about the markings...I'm interested in where do these things come from and why do I recognize them. To me, when I see them I think they have a vital energy that is lost in things that are more manipulated and controlled."
And so Connaughty devotes himself to a weirdly regimented and exhaustive process of choosing to lose control.
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