BY DOUG HARVEY
Bruce Conner is a contrary man. In 1959, he sent out black-edged invitations to a show of paintings by ”the Late Bruce Conner.“ That same year, he began a work-to-rule campaign over his New York dealer Charles Alan’s insistence that the artist sign his paintings on the front of the canvas, by signing them in such unlikely places and near-microscopic cursive that he had to draw maps to each autograph‘s location. By the next year, Conner was refusing to sign any works, but gamely tried to oblige Alan by providing him with a rubber stamp of his signature, encouraging the dealer to stamp it ”on my work, other people’s work, or anything.“ In the early ‘60s, he retreated to the hills of Mexico to wait out the impending nuclear holocaust, but soured on the survivalist trip after a year. Throughout this period, when approached for photographs of himself he would refuse, or send a photo of someone or something else, or stage publicity shoots with a stand-in. He even sent a ringer out to give lectures as Bruce Conner, years before Warhol gained notoriety for the same stunt. In 1964, having achieved an unprecedented degree of acceptance in the art world for a West Coast assemblage sculptor, he abandoned his signature nostalgia-curdled biomorphic agglomerations of thrift-store sweepings to focus on filmmaking.
The same year, in a failed attempt to torpedo his burgeoning reputation as an experimental filmmaker, he subjected audiences to a 35-minute-long loop of stock film leader counting down from 10 to 3 over and over. While the few screenings did, in fact, provoke riotous negative audience consensus, Conner’s reputation as a provocateur auteur only emerged enhanced. In 1967, he assembled a series of Surrealist-tinged engraving collages dangerously reminiscent of (though ultimately better than) similar work by Max Ernst, and pitched them to his L.A. gallerist to be presented as ”The Dennis Hopper One-Man Show,“ with no public indication of their true authorship. The dealer passed. Conner temporarily abandoned filmmaking and his last tenuous links with the art world to participate in the North American Ibis Alchemical Light Company‘s psychedelic light shows at the Avalon Ballroom and conduct a campaign for San Francisco city supervisor that included speeches consisting of lists of desserts (delicious enough to garner him more than 5,000 votes), while supporting himself as a janitor and salesman in a knickknack shop. He didn’t show for four years. He listed himself in Who‘s Who in American Art as ”deceased.“ But he just kept going, re-emerging with several seemingly discrete bodies of work over the next couple of decades, including more films, more collaged engravings, documentary photos of the San Francisco punk scene, and hundreds of intricate inkblot drawings.
Given this contrariness, it isn’t surprising that Conner‘s retrospective, ”2000 BC: The Bruce Conner Story Part II,“ is conspicuously designated ”Not a Retrospective.“ And while Conner’s oppositional engagement with both the art world and received notions of authorship and identity would provide a substantial structure for a career survey (and do indeed constitute one of several themes running through the exhibit), the truly extraordinary aspect of Conner‘s oeuvre is the breadth and depth of sensually engaging, intellectually surprising, formally virtuosic work to fall out from a position of such conceptual rigor.
For starters, there are the assemblage sculptures that made him famous. The power of Conner’s gooey, sparkly, bittersweet confections is apparent in their ability to overcome the dismissive filters resulting from decades‘ worth of formulaic undergraduate imitators armed with old wood, lacy underwear, newspaper clippings and gallons of murky polyurethane. Mutating Kurt Schwitters’ sedate formal deliberations into seething psychedelic reliquaries for abandoned cultural minutiae, Conner single-handedly forged a strikingly androgynous American art vernacular (his soft, ephemeral craft projects undermined the macho welded-girder sculptural standards of the day) that hovers impossibly between figuration and abstraction, narrative and decoration, morbid nostalgia and wallowing hedonism.
These works alone would have been enough to secure him a revered place in art history, but, by applying the same scavenger aesthetics to another medium entirely, Conner managed to both revolutionize that medium and establish a largely separate audience and artistic persona as an experimental filmmaker. Assembled from cheap mass-produced movies sold for home viewing, A Movie is widely considered Conner‘s single most important artwork. Apart from inadvertently becoming a touchstone for the current strain of sample-happy artmaking that keeps intellectual-property lawyers in the money, A Movie was an unprecedented structuralist investigation of the formal and narrative conventions of Hollywood. Experimental filmmaking before Conner had sought to establish a parallel culture, one that embraced irrationality, subjectivity and forbidden topics. A Movie showed that, viewed from the proper perspective, the cinema that surrounds us already contains these elements and more.
Conner went on to make a couple dozen more short films, many of which screen daily in the Ahmanson Auditorium, and several of which are incorporated in the main exhibit in blessedly light- and sound-tight minitheaters, as gorgeous 16mm prints. Breakaway is a cut-up of Toni Basil dancing in various stages of undress to her 1966 single of the same name, which, at its conclusion, is repeated in its entirety in reverse. The exquisitely indeterminate Take the 5:10 to Dreamland exemplifies Conner’s late period of filmmaking, characterized by slower, hypnotic pacing and more fugitive connotations. Also present are an installation containing the seldom screened Television Assassination re-projected onto the painted-out screen of a vintage TV, and the dazzling Looking for Mushrooms, both in interactive Moviola form and the revised slowed-down version with the 1967 Terry Riley soundtrack, which was seen last year at Kohn Turner Gallery. It took the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis to assemble ”2000 BC,“ and although MOCA deserves credit for picking it up (frankly, it‘s the best show they’ve had in years), it‘s kind of embarrassing that the exhibit didn’t originate in California. In contrast, Kohn Turner (previously Michael Kohn Gallery) has been supportive of Conner for more than a decade, regularly showing his work and publishing an excellent series of small catalogs of his works on paper. Through this weekend, the gallery displays a combination of Conner‘s smaller early assemblage works and recent inkblot drawings.
The latter are also well represented at MOCA. Elaborately accordioned papers populated by scores of tiny symmetrical entities arranged in elaborate geometrical patterns along the creases, the inkblots are just one of several oeuvres in Conner’s output. Several aren‘t included in ”2000 BC“ -- hence ”Not a Retrospective.“ Of hundreds of oil paintings from his early years, only one lovely example is included. His lost weekend as a punk photographer is passed over entirely. But the series that are included -- the aforementioned engraving collages, the horror-vacui watercolor-marker mandalas, the evaporated self-portraiture of the ”Angel“ photograms -- a are substantial enough to constitute a lesser artist’s entire career. Casually observed, the sum of these parts can give the impression of uncertainty, lack of focus or even a reactionary stylistic restlessness determined in response to art-world fashion. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Conner‘s fecundity emerges from a deeply observed dualistic understanding of phenomenal reality, and what on the surface appear to be cantankerously arbitrary assaults on convention are in truth the result of friction between those conventions and a complex and consistent world-view. A key piece is an early assemblage included in the show titled The Bride (1960), which Conner has repeatedly linked to Miss Havisham, the bitter dowager from Dickens’ Great Expectations, whose elaborate wedding feast is left untouched for decades after she is stood up at the altar. Conner‘s work in its entirety may be seen as such a feast -- a fantastical spread of baroquely elegiac stimuli resulting from the unconsummated resolution between Creativity and the Void. In this sense, Conner is a bit of a cock-tease, oscillating between darkness and light with Zoroastrian aplomb, as in his JFK-assassination film, Report, which contains an extended stroboscopic sequence of alternate frames of black and white. And although the result may be a seizure, or at least a Technicolor hallucination, the richness of the experience indicates resignation. Each time Conner shifts his attention to a new set of materials or a new conceptual framework, it is as if only to say, ”Here too, with as much craft and beauty and wit as can be mustered, we fail to connect.“ To overcome the impossibility of communicating the resolution of duality experienced by the artist during the creative act would mean the disappearance of Art, and Conner would have to take up his janitor’s broom again. Barring that, we are privileged to share his sad and beautiful world.