The smell of oil paint, beer, turpentine and fear wafts out of “The Art of Failure: Chuck Connelly Not for Sale,” which is less a biodoc than a fractured portrait of the once-prominent New Yorker painter. It’s also the latest art doc to try, and in this case succeed, in emulating its subject’s style and substance. HBO production hits the smallscreen on Monday, but the cabler wouldn’t be crazy to consider some kinds of creative alternatives, post-TV.
Connelly, acclaimed as a neo-Van Gogh when he hit the heady New York art scene of the 1980s, has earned millions for his paintings but never achieved the celebrity status of a Julian Schnabel, Jean-Michel Basquiat or Mark Kostabi (who appears here, testifying to the divergent destinies of commodified art vs. lunatic individualism).
It was Connelly’s own inability to conform to the niceties of the gallery world, and a pathological compulsion to alienate clients and patrons, that kept him off the ostensible A list. What the doc doesn’t need to overemphasize is that none of this has anything to do with art, just personality, and that Connelly’s is toxic.
The film depicts his tirades and verbal abuse of his then-wife Laurance. The couple broke up halfway through filming, which certainly lends pathos to the project. Yet Connelly is not an unlikable subject, and the viewer is left hoping the exposure will help his art sales.
Some docs try to dazzle you with a deluge of information, others with access. “Art of Failure” has no shortage of info, but it’s the intimate moments that really grab the viewer. “I’d rather use up my talent than my cash,” Connelly bellows, trying to negotiate his way out of a restaurant tab and further antagonizing Laurance.
Shot by a variety of people, including Laurance, producer-helmer Jeff Stimmel and Connelly himself, “Art of Failure” is as unvarnished a portrait of an artist as one is likely to get, and the mix of desperation and resignation that surround Connelly’s agreement to let himself be seen so nakedly only adds to the film’s poignancy.
Stimmel, who took over the project from Connelly’s sister Marjorie after the siblings had a falling out, stages one elaborate prank involving Connelly’s alter ego, Fred Scaboda. Actor David Nelson is hired to portray the fictional artist, who represents Connelly’s art as his own. It’s an amusing device that could have been used to much crueler ends (fortunately, it wasn’t).
“Art of Failure” offers an indictment of the art establishment, which promotes as genius anything that will sell, and a man who refused to knuckle under to what he viewed as the enforced compromises of artistic success. Why? Maybe because his father kicked his pregnant mother in the stomach the night Connelly was born, which is the kind of detail that sneaks up and kicks you in the head, just as Stimmel’s fast-forward cataloguing of Connelly’s 3,000 unsold pictures makes that same head spin.
Ungainly collage of gathered formats and perspectives fits the subject.