Almost everything in this room is still. The tables, the chairs, the bar, the bottles, the walls--it's all at rest. David McConnell, though, can't stop moving. He's on a couch, crossing and uncrossing his right leg over his left, leaning forward and tucking his folded left fist under the slight stubble on his chin. He swigs from a Styrofoam cup of coffee and looks at the floor. Talking about his own art makes McConnell anxious.
"It's pretty abstract, I guess. It doesn't really lend itself to much narrative interpretation," says McConnell, sitting in the lounge of Bickett Gallery, surrounded by the past three years of his life: 29 paintings, 11 digitally manipulated photographs, a 46-minute score and a 19-minute film.
But there's motion elsewhere, too: As McConnell nervously shifts back and forth, talking about his childhood and his time as a record producer in the great American jungle of Los Angeles, his paintings--stretched canvases mounted by hidden nails to the gallery's starch-white walls--move with him.
"In modern painting, movement is vertical or horizontal. These pieces illustrate my desire for movement in every direction," he says, motioning to "Glory Symphonic No. 4," a small canvas textured by multiple layers of paint and set in motion with randomized globs, streaks and splats. "When I look at this painting, it's really moving."
McConnell's still-but-moving pictures are an apt metaphor for his life. He was born in Springfield, Mo., but his parents moved south and west--to Texas and New Mexico, then California--before he was 10. His mother was a painter, and his father was a musician, a choir conductor and concert pianist. She taught McConnell about oil paints, but he took McConnell to work every day, the boy tinkering away at every instrument he could find.
"My dad was teaching me classical stuff, and I tended not to enjoy that as much as sitting down and improvising," he says. "Eventually, I was turned onto more contemporary forms, like The Beatles or Pink Floyd, loud guitars and drum sets. I wanted to be able to do it all and play all the instruments I heard on the album."
Those bands and their sounds set him on a continuous course of short-lived bands and session work, beginning in California when he was only 9. He formed his first neighborhood rock act and remembers playing in clubs with his early high school project as a 14-year-old. But McConnell never finished high school--"I enjoyed going only to smoke cigarettes in the girls' bathroom"--because, in his mind, he had already moved on. He wanted to be a musician.
The high school band had made a handful of demos, and McConnell became obsessed with recording. He had befriended some area engineers and producers who liked his music and showed him the ropes of manning a studio. He spent a day working with Cracker when he was 15, and he produced a record for Rick Sylvain at San Francisco's Brilliant Studios when he was 17.
"From there, it became almost like an addiction. If I couldn't find someone who needed a producer and someone to guide them through their own recording process, then I would start writing my own songs," says McConnell, who has recorded three solo albums and one with lavish indie pop band Goldenboy.
More than a decade later, McConnell still regrets what happened to his first solo album, also recorded in San Francisco at Brilliant Studios with Daniel Presley, whose work on The Breeders' Last Splash had intrigued McConnell. The record was good, says McConnell, but because he had made so few contacts in the business side of Los Angeles music, it was never released.
"In Los Angeles, you can throw a rock in any direction and you'll hit somebody who's in three bands. People were struggling to become successful and to be the next cool band," he says. "That environment--where it wasn't about what they were creating as much as it was about their goals in the business--was frustrating."
Smith and McConnell were introduced through a mutual musician friend in 2000, Smith living in Los Angeles, 20 minutes away from McConnell, who ran a studio from a basement on a hill in Malibu. They had an 8 p.m. appointment, but Smith arrived sometime after 3 a.m., waking McConnell up and sitting in the studio with him until dawn, talking about gear, life and the inevitable next record. "Can we start right now?" asked Smith.
Smith walked outside and moved two cars worth of equipment (his girlfriend had also driven) into McConnell's space. Their three-year relationship formed the bulk of From a Basement on a Hill, the posthumous album from Smith, who was found dead on Oct. 21, 2003 in his Los Angeles apartment at age 34.
McConnell says Smith's death and the controversy around it, which ran counter to their relationship, almost killed him: It was a battle of who had the right versions of the right songs, more driven by manufacturing some cumulative closing statement from Smith than properly releasing his vision. McConnell says entire chunks are missing from the album. When he listens to the record even now, he listens to the mixes he finished with Smith.
McConnell eventually moved on: One year later, he started painting again, dozens of full-canvas works suddenly pouring out in a matter of months. "Prescription"--symbolizing the mixed emotions of chemical addiction--was his first completed work. He soon moved to North Carolina, opening a studio with Sparklehorse in Asheville and beginning work on a multimedia installation at Bickett Gallery in Raleigh. He had met owner Molly Miller on tour with Goldenboy, and was fascinated with her multiple-use vision for the space.
"I was going through such a dark period in my life that I probably wasn't going to be on this planet much longer. I had some dark inclinations in my head," he remembers. "But when I found Charlie, he brought me all this joy and reversed my outlook on all this stuff."
McConnell painted a portrait of Charlie in his typical kinetic style after he picked up his brush again in 2003. It hasn't sold yet, but it will. For an artist like McConnell, when someone buys a piece and it moves on, a big scrap of the past is vanished.
"It's a lot different than selling a record because it is one of a kind, and it's an investment," says McConnell, who often asks the buyer if he can visit the painting at least once a year. "But if I'm not selling paintings, I'm starving, because I refuse to work a normal job. I just know I could be spending that time so much better."
The installation runs through July 8. For more, see www.bickettgallery.com.