Walter McConnell Gets Dirty at Downtown Gallery

The Downtown Gallery is darkened to absorbing effect this month for an installation by Walter McConnell, professor at the New York State College of Ceramics in Alfred, N.Y. McConnell, assisted by University of Tennessee art students, has spent the first week of the month installing Installation in Clay, which is composed of two tall plastic tubes, each housing its own scene: One, a male figure, and the other, a lush garden of sorts.

The installation involves a nude, but that isn't what makes it feel so dirty. That job is left to the gobs of unfired clay, molded into the craters and folds of elaborately flowering plants, and found at the bottom of the tube in slightly, yet emphatically, twisted cylinders that resemble something more intestinal. As the wet clay sits, and sits, within the plastic casing under lights, condensation forms on the insides of the tubes. Especially when confronted by the clay at the tube's base—where the material reaches its imposed limits, mashed up against the plastic—the moist piles invoke a sort of, indeed, visceral reaction. You may briefly feel like you're in a mud bath, or at least have a strong desire to tear through the plastic to make one.

You can't, of course. Separated as you are from the sculpted earthen flora behind the plastic, so is McConnell's sculpted figure, resigned to his own tube and his own landscape, such as it is. Contrasted with the enormous blooms and thick, smooth leaves heaped decadently, impossibly, with no order found in nature, on top of each other for several feet in the garden tube, the figure stands amid, well, not much. To call it "shale" would be too generous. A few molded planes, really. The figure, modeled after the artist, stands tall near the plastic, stares blankly ahead into an unknown distance, and, though (or through) dominating his open landscape, is exposed both by his lack of clothing and absence of natural cover.

The condensation on the plastic cases further creates a striking atmosphere and twists the experience considerably. The ever-increasing film creates a hazy filter that threatens to partially obscure your view, and makes the prospect of approaching the sculptures, spotlighted as they are with markedly dim surroundings, feel like stumbling upon unspeakable specimens in a sci-fi movie. Upon closer inspection, the wetness distances the viewer from the representational, interfering with the viewers' relationship to the neatly sculpted life forms, at the same time as it announces the very real nature of the clay itself.

McConnell's installation peers into our collective cultural struggle for perspective, in which we keep busy in turns romanticizing and conquering, constructing and destroying. Faced with this tension between the pristine and the soil(ed), suggesting something of a Madonna-whore complex, McConnell not only manages to avoid raising the overly simplistic notion that we're disconnected from the natural world—and, in fact, states that impossibility—but also exposes our continuing difficulties with articulating our attitude toward it, and finding our place within it.