Post Road Magazine #7

Stoney Conley: Paintings Introduction by Claude Cernuschi

Ghost Flower Ghost Malva Spirit Flower: Peonie Spirit Malva Spirit Flower: Rhodadendrum Spirit: Rhodadendrum Night Blooming Memory

Stoney Conley's pieces illustrated here comprise the building blocks for a series. They are all related visually and, iconographically, and contain a strong autobiographical component. In particular, the works are visual responses to the tragic passing of both the artist's parents within a remarkably short span of time. Given that Conley's mother was a gardener, the ubiquity of the flower in this series functions, specifically, as a metonym for the deceased parent and for her love of living and growing things. But the presence of the flower, depicted here in various states of blooming and fading, is also more generally symbolic (ever since 17th- century Dutch still-life painting) of the brevity and fragility of human life. In these works, therefore, flowers play a complex dual role. Firstly, they function as a memorial to a particular individual–to that individual's love of life and positive contribution to her environment–and, secondly, as a reference to the long tradition in art history of employing flowers to convey the inescapable passing of time.

The dark colors, reductive simplicity, and the absence of any distracting details in this series also accentuate the tragic mood of the individual pieces. As does the presence of the moon, which was full the night of Conley's mother's passing, and which hovers over the flowers, partly as a physical, celestial body, and partly as some nearly supernatural, metaphysical reference to the possibility of an afterlife. Again, Conley's work recalls prototypes in the history of art where celestial objects–suns, moons, or stars–were also used to convey a more subjective, contemplative, even philosophical mood. In the works of Romantic artists such as Caspar David Friedrich or Post-Impressionists such as Vincent van Gogh, heavenly spheres were frequently meant to represent a pantheistic connection with nature, as well as to communicate the potential of spiritual transcendence within the confines of an otherwise limited and material world. In Conley's work, here, the position of the flower below and of the moon above play out a similarly delicate but equally portentous dialectic.

Conley, moreover, heightens the sense of the moon's evocative power by allowing it to peer through the diaphanous veil of a hovering white cloud, which both reveals as well as obscures the presence of, and light emitted by, this elusive sphere. This intricate play between light and dark, presence and absence, revelation and obfuscation, thus reinforces both the specificity of the mood and of the commemorative event that these pieces are meant to evoke. It is no less important to mention that there is also a congruity between meaning and form in many of Conley's works–especially Ghost Flower. The form of the flower is often outlined by means of a process of scraping away, allowing the ground or underpainting to show through. This is especially apposite given that the pieces are about absence and the passing away of all things terrestrial •

Claude Cernuschi received his MA and PhD from the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, and is presently associate professor of art history at Boston College. He is the author of Jackson Pollock: Meaning and Significance, Jackson Pollock: “Psychoanalytic” Drawings, Not an Illustration, But the Equivalent: A Cognitive Approach to Abstract Expressionism, and Re/Casting Kokoschka: Ethics and Aesthetics, Epistemology and Politics in Fin-de-Siecle Vienna.

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