BY DENNIS HARVEY
Practically since Gold Rush days, San Francisco has fostered giddily rule-breaking artistic personalities who pushed their medium (or multimedia) forward. Certainly leading in that department was Bruce Conner, the sculptor, painter, photographer and filmmaker–just a partial list–who loomed large in the Bay Area’s shifting avant-garde currents for fifty years, until his death in July 2008 at age 74.
Fittingly, his work has been significantly featured in SFMOMA’s 75th anniversary celebration of exhibits and events. Bracketed under the monicker “Long Play: Bruce Conner and the Singles Collection," it showcases some of his enormously influential experimental films, as well as sampling film and video by others reflecting that influence.
The centerpiece, playing continuously during museum hours through May 23, is dazzling: One of Conner’s last efforts, Three Screen Ray. Occupying an entire large wall in a darkened room, it’s a synchronized triple-screen mashup of two much earlier B&W film pieces, the legendary 16mm Cosmic Ray (1961) and Eve-Ray-Forever (1965). (Yes, Conner preferred his titles be all-caps.)
An atomic age experimental bombshell, Cosmic was a joltingly energetic mashup of footage found (cartoons, newsreels, educational films, commercials, striptease clips) and new (fellow artists Joan Brown and Beth Pewther in various states of dress) set to a very raunchy live R&B track by Ray Charles. Eve-Ray was a silent three-screen 8mm installation reworking the same materials.
The digitized, re-edited Three Screen ray is all that and more, an ecstatic overload. How often do you hear fellow patrons say “That was amazing!” after watching museum video art? Sitting through the five-minute TSR three times recently, I heard such sentiments a lot.
With its simultaneous embodiment and critique of American brashness, crassness, hawkishness and money-maker-shakin’, Cosmic Ray feels like all of the 1950s and 1960s–though the latter had barely started yet–put in a blender with funky soul. It should be put in a time capsule so whoever survives this current century to ponder the last one. But Three Screen Ray can only be appreciated “live,” as it were–lord knows not on your iPhone or even TV screen. It’s bigger than life. It’s bigger than Jesus, to quote the Beatles.
Next door in a smaller gallery are three rotating programs from SFMOMA’s collection of single-channel video art, with the emphasis on appropriation–materials visual and/or sonic rejiggered to reveal new meanings, as Conner so often did. The first program (which ended in February) started off with another vintage Conner classic, 1966’s Breakaway, in which the titular excellent discotheque song is both sung and (on-screen) danced to by Antonia Christina Basilotta–better known as Toni Basil, the choreographer, dancer, actress and MTV-driven 1982 one-hit wonder “Mickey.” Her gyrations (again in various degrees of dress, from op-art leotard to starkers) are frenetically cut throughout the song. When it fades out, we experience a fast-rewind of the same. The program that played March and April reprised Breakaway with a new, longer (75 minutes) bill of works by German Klaus vom Bruch plus Americans Christian Marclay, Dara Birnbaum and Tony Cokes. The half-hour "Bonus Tracks” final program in May combines Conner’s 1981 Mea Culpa with much newer works by exclusively Bay Area artists: Kota Ezawa’s new Twistonmyside, Anne McGuire’s I Am Crazy and You’re Not Wrong (a semi-oldie from 1997), Anne Colvin’s The Audition, and John Davis’ Mark You Make Me Believe Me, Dear.
Three Screen Ray makes its premiere here in its Conner’s finalized installation format. It is possibly the object of greatest delight permanently acquired by SFMOMA since the life-sized porcelain Michael Jackson and Bubbles. (No, I am not being snarky.)
Conner was first associated with San Francisco “Beats” when he moved here in 1957. But he identified equally with the hippies and punks later on. No wonder his work, cinematic and otherwise, remains so fresh–he was forever, excitedly moving forward.