BY MICHAEL FOX
Bruce Conner, along with the Legion of Decency, figured out pretty early on that rock 'n' roll and sex were joined at the, well, hip. (It's a youth thing, don't you know.) The San Francisco artist and filmmaker, who died in 2008, was also among the first to pioneer a new way of thinking about images, namely that appropriating footage shot for one purpose -- educational films, cartoons, commercials, propaganda films -- and presenting it in another context offered all sorts of shocking and entertaining possibilities.
The use of found footage, as the approach has come to be known, is familiar to the point of cliché thanks to countless TV ads and music videos. So I'm extremely pleased (and relieved, frankly) to report that Conner's Three Screen Ray, a triptych reworking of 1961's Cosmic Ray that's on view at SFMOMA through the spring, remains an energy-packed chunk of voracious, irreverent Americana. Half a century on, Conner's fast and furious marriage of sexy black-and-white imagery and swaggering Ray Charles stomp has lost none of its wit but a good bit of its audacity.
Cosmic Ray, as well as this new ultra-widescreen installation, lays Charles's soulfully, suggestively lascivious What'd I Say underneath a barrage of shots and snippets that essentially traverse the arc from foreplay to climax. A choice selection of nude female dancers provide the surface come-on, augmented with shots of rockets, cannons (courtesy of a Mickey Mouse 'toon) and even the raising of the Stars and Stripes on Iwo Jima. (Insert flagpole joke here.) The fire-hose-like cascade from an uncorked bottle -- eyes on the left screen only, if you please -- provides the punch line in case you took everything that came before it too seriously.
Of course, Conner is proffering serious social commentary, if you can elevate your mind from your belt buckle, about the testosterone that drives both U.S. military adventures and consumer spending. The effort and expense expended by women to win approval and attract a mate, while not exclusive to America, first manifested itself most visibly in 1950s and '60s TV commercials. In other words, Three Screen Ray is an acknowledgment of both basic human hormonal urges and the society that exploited and manipulated them. Hmmm, did I need to use the past tense there? I thought not.
It's inevitable that while we still take much pleasure from Conner's editing and rhythm, we can't fathom what a bold smack in the face Cosmic Ray was when it debuted at underground events back in the day. Neither nudity nor ribald sight gags shock us anymore, not after decades of MTV, prime-time wardrobe malfunctions and porn on demand. Consumerism is beyond satire at this point, while the military is above it.
Years later, Conner was credited with introducing the music video, a notion he rejected out of hand. SFMOMA has nonetheless assembled a bunch of music-related works by various artists in an adjacent gallery, the best of which, far and away, is Conner's gorgeous black-and-white Breakaway (1966). Featuring Antonia Christina Basilotta (Toni Basil) onscreen and on the soundtrack, the film and its subject are fresh, bouncy and overtly sexual. But there's an enormous difference between Basil and the girls on display in Cosmic Ray. She owns her body and its visual representation (long before Madonna, by the by); she isn't passively accepting the male gaze but challenging it. Five minutes of pure pop goodness, Breakaway is liberating, intoxicating, energizing and timeless.
None of those lovely words apply to the other selections. Two examples: Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist's I'm Not the Girl Who Misses Much (1986) is painfully self-indulgent but at least offers a few bars of The Beatles' Happiness Is a Warm Gun (get the connection?). Cory Arcangel's All the Parts From Simon and Garfunkel's 1984 Central Park Performance Where Garfunkel Sings With His Hands In His Pockets is amusing for 20 seconds, but goes on for more than six minutes. I look at it this way: Every installation needs a room clearer.
Long Play: Bruce Conner and the Singles Collection is on view through May 23, 2010 at SFMoMA, 151 Third St. (at Howard) in San Francisco. For more information visit sfmoma.org.