by Shraddha NairApr 16, 2021
American painter Robert Steven Connett is a practitioner whose work for many that scour the internet will have likely encountered. His art appeals chiefly to psychedelic and cosmic horror sensibilities. It is wholly plausible that several artists who create works in the aforementioned genres will themselves have been inspired, to some degree, by him owing to the expansive size of his oeuvre and his distinctly unique visuals.
Currently a resident of LA, Connett’s work is chiefly informed by the floral and insect life found within the forests around his home as well as an enduring fascination for the alien beauty and terror of aquatic forms. He says, “My fingers would tremble while I set my hooks and sinkers. We would sit side by side in plastic lawn chairs as the boat gently swayed in the calm morning water,” speaking of fishing trips he took with his father in the San Francisco waters when he was a child in the 50s. The ambience and allure of the ocean, along with the strange fishes they would catch impressed themselves upon Connett lastingly, and he talks about alien-esque, disc-shaped fish, and fishes that were stranger yet, with fins that looked like seaweed or with glowing worms clinging to their bodies. These, and other seemingly preternatural forms find themselves in several of his pieces, like so many uncanny ichthyoids convening to submerge the viewer within a primeval abyss. He produces the same striking result with his insect paintings, enhancing and magnifying not only the strange physiclaities of the creatures depicted within these works but the larger world they inhabit as well, leading to the creation of extra-terrestrial landscapes populated by other-worldly denizens that captivate and hold viewers in a state of anxious curiosity.
Along with a fascination for biotic lifeforms, the artist is also informed by the themes and imagery of cosmic horror as it was mentioned above, specifically in the vein of authors such as HP Lovecraft and Robert W Chambers. These elements are easily recognisable in pieces such as ‘Idiot Gods,’ wherein Connett mashes together the unknowable and horrifying flesh-forms this genre is known for, and there are certainly echoes of the mystery and incomprehensibility of that which we cannot truly fathom within much of his oeuvre, even outside works that specifically reference this genre. The artist speaks about his childhood involvement with Lovecraft’s works, and tells STIR, “I loved the short story about an artist, ‘Pickman’s Model’; the story about a painter who created brilliant and horrifying paintings but was shunned by his contemporaries. He was a real outsider! I too have always felt like an outsider. Later, he was absorbed by the monsters of his imagination”. This sentiment of alienation that connects the artist to Lovecraft’s character is another important aspect to consider when reading Connett’s paintings, perhaps not with regards to his artistry itself, but certainly in order to develop an understanding of the psychological space that birthed his work. He explains, “When I was very young, I learned to draw as an outlet for my feelings. I did poorly in school and was often depressed. Throughout my childhood years, I expressed myself by drawing pictures. Drawing lightened my dark moods”. Connett’s alienation, then, has served as a sort of binding agent, bringing together some of his interests as a child, and facilitating their germination within a child’s mind, filled with its characteristic sense of wonderment; a sense that may still be found within his work today. With this in mind, a viewing of Connett’s work manifests the distinct feeling that the artist has observed his subjects and expanded them in every sense in his mind’s eye; eschewing any attempt at portraying them for what they are in favour of portraying them as he sees them: fantastical and wholly unknowable.
Formerly an insurance broker, Connett hit a crossroads in his life in 1995, when his home burnt down along with all his worldly possessions. The artist mentions that he had been in bed at the time of the fire and only narrowly made it out with his life. Until that point, he had practiced his craft only at night, always dreaming of turning his hobby into something more. However, having the impermanence of things and the prospect of an untimely demise demonstrated to him in such a devastating way, he began to make a shift to painting full-time, which he would begin in 1998. He says, “It took me almost 10 years of painting every day to sell my first piece, and 20 years to narrowly make a living at it. My wife helped support us financially during these years. I am forever grateful to her for enriching our lives through self-sacrifice, determination and love. A debt I try to repay every day”.
Connett has a great deal to say about the message he is trying to convey to audiences through his work. He says, “Recently, my work has become a response to and an outlet for how I feel about the deterioration of our planet. Perhaps especially the world's oceans; the wellspring of life”. He isolates the key issue at hand to a collective reluctance to act, explaining, “The problem I see is that in spite of the evidence growing to the contrary, most of us turn our heads and hope that someone else will stop the mass extinctions and the physical destruction of our biosphere”. He agrees that the oft-repeated question “what can we do?” is a legitimate one, and answers, “One small thing I do is to create paintings that show the world as it once was. A world of unlimited biodiversity. I am inspired to paint by my love of our world; to create realms that are not diminished as a remembrance of how things used to be. There are no extinctions and no disruptions, all is in harmony and perfect balance. My imaginary ecosystems are bursting with extraordinary life. I hope that my paintings might delight the viewer, and possibly remind us of the beauty we stand to lose”.