by David M. Roth
Drawing, it has often been said, is a portal to an artist’s soul. If so, Assembled: Bruce Conner / Jean Conner / Anonymous / Anonymouse / Emily Feather / Signed in Blood, an exhibition of works on paper organized by Todd Hosfelt and the Conner Family Trust, is a door wide-open: One hundred seventeen works line the walls of this warehouse-sized gallery, revealing previously unknown aspects of the artists’ practices and reiterating much of what we know about Bruce Conner from two recent shows: a 2016 retrospective (It’s All True) at SFMOMA and an exhaustive exhibition of works on paper (Somebody Else’s Prints) mounted at the San Jose ICA a year earlier.
Bruce and Jean Conner, 88, were not co-equals professionally. From the time they married in 1957 until Bruce’s death at age 74 in 2008, it was he who captured and held the spotlight. He was garrulous, outgoing and relentlessly self-promoting; she willingly assumed the roles of mother, homemaker, and later, when Bruce fell ill, caretaker. While Jean consistently made art, it was always as a sideline. His output, by contrast, was prodigious, multifaceted and massively influential. It spanned assemblage, installation, painting, drawing, performance, film, video, photography and conceptual works that, together, form a reflecting pool – or, perhaps more accurately, a wunderkammer – of post-WII era horrors and hopes, all of which left an indelible imprint on everyone who encountered them, even those critics who initially dismissed them. Despite all that, the exhibition, intentionally or not, feels like something of a corrective in that it reveals Jean Conner’s innovations as a maker of Surrealist collages and her contributions to a suite of drawings made by both artists during their one-year (1961-62) residence in Mexico City.
Though collaboration between the two has never been documented or suggested, evidence of possible cross-pollination between the two appears here for the first time. It can be seen at the entrance of the gallery in two pieces mounted side-by-side: a collage by Jean, Painting with Fringe (1964), and a mixed media assemblage, Mom’s Collage (1961), by Bruce. Both feature cloth fringe at the bottom. That may not sound like much, but the point is: the two, at least for a short time, appear to be working in tandem, traveling together and sharing ideas first promulgated by Bruce that would help usher in a new era of avant-garde art-making in San Francisco among a small cohort that included Jay DeFeo, Wally Hedrick, Joan Brown, Fred Martin, Carlos Villa, the poet Michael McClure and others. On that same wall, an even stronger example of Jean’s contributions to the Conner enterprise can be glimpsed in a 1960 collage called Eucalyptus Grove, consisting of tree trunks into which eyes are embedded. Referencing the occult leanings of 19th century Symbolism and foretelling a state security apparatus that was still 50 years off, it stands as one of the most beguiling images in the show. Over the years, the motif of the omnipresent eye would appear over and over in the works of both artists. Significantly, the source material for Eucalyptus Grove — Victorian-era reproductions of wood engravings – is identical to that used by Bruce two years earlier and which he later deployed for decades across several series of engraving collages that collectively represent an apex of Beat-era/countercultural expression (albeit one heavily indebted to Max Ernst). The thematic roots of these and subsequent works in a wide variety of media trace to the above-referenced sojourn in Mexico City during which the Conners encountered Timothy Leary. There, Bruce began developing a visual vocabulary that reflected his interests in the occult, psychedelic experience and a longstanding obsession with death that was only magnified by his fear of a nuclear holocaust — the impetus behind the couple’s temporary relocation there from San Francisco.
“Mexico,” he told Rebecca Solnit, “is a wonderful place to go if you’re running away from death, because they celebrate it, with bells and parades and everything else.” Spirituality, he discovered, was embedded in even the most mundane aspects of Mexican daily life. “I would go to an auto-repair garage and in the midst of greasy tools and objects on the wall would be a shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe. A picture of the Virgin. Right next to it might be a monkey wrench and an electric light bulb and plastic flowers and a pinup of a half-naked girl. Pictures of family, souvenirs,” he told Peter Boswell, then a Walker Art Center curator.
Absorbing that ethos, Bruce, during this period, created a good many of the found-object assemblages for which he’d earlier gained notoriety. It was also during that period that he and Jean made enigmatic graphite and ink drawings filled with all manner of local iconography: crosses, churches, funeral wreaths, pyramids, psilocybin mushrooms, serpents, words, faces, body parts. Vaporously rendered and populated with visual nonsequiturs, they stick in the mind like residues of a vaguely remembered dream. So close in character are their approaches to line and composition that it’s impossible to tell who did what without reading the signatures. Though no evidence exists for their having done so, you can easily imagine the couple pushing these drawings back and forth across a table, engaged in a game of exquisite corpse, so closely aligned are their impulses.
Permeating these early drawings are seeds of the Dadaist/Surrealist sensibility that would later define the output of both in the ensuing decades. An untitled drawing by Bruce dated May 10, 1962, for example, may have started as a rendering of a staircase, only to morph at one end into a limp, elephantine appendage, grazed at the rear by a falling flower pot. An ink drawing by Jean from the same year shows a crouching figure festooned at the top with lightbulbs. They sprout from a masked head with a single, ominously blackened eye socket showing from beneath a white hood. The right arm clutches a circular shape, which the artist said is a film reel, but could just as easily be a traffic circle. Occult symbols and religious motifs figure prominently, too. In a couple of untitled works, Bruce lays out images of crosses, steeples and graveyards and connects them with thin dashes in the manner of schematics; they look like they could be cut up and pieced together to form maquettes, indicating a possible origin for the show’s title, Assembled. Elsewhere, a drawing by Jean showing a snake encircling geometric shapes with an outward-facing palm at the top can be read only one way: as an annunciation. Cryptic shapes and symbols — white paper circles and a small snippet of a playing card (a queen of hearts) – affix to the surface but yield no appreciable clues. Another untitled 1962 work of Jean’s, showing a candle-topped mountain with a skeleton inside, is drawn to look like an exposed archeological dig or, alternately, a window onto a womb, possibly the artist’s since she was pregnant at the time with the couple’s only child, Robert.
At about the midpoint of the exhibition, hints of mutual influence and collaboration fade and are replaced by works of unmistakable authorship. They include Bruce’s inkblot and mandala drawings, his engraving and photocopy collages, a single, but terrific punk rock photo, and collages made by Jean from magazine clippings. Twenty of the latter dating from 1970 to 2015 are on display, all of them laced with mordant and sometimes wacky humor. The wackiest involve mutant sea creatures interacting with humans in B-movie situations that would likely appeal to fans of Wes (Swamp Thing) Craven. Octopus (1982), for example, shows a giant cephalopod climbing out of a lake in pursuit of a frightened scuba diver with a shark looming overhead. Images like this may not sweeten your dreams, but you can’t help but marvel at how clearly and seamlessly the source images coalesce, sidestepping, if not opposing, what could have been the overpowering influence of the couple’s friend, Jess Collins, a collagist known professionally by his first name and whose claustrophobic works could stand as textbook definitions of the term horror vacui. (Bruce, in later years, would make woodcut collages that were similarly dense and even more outlandish than those created by either Jean or Jess.) My favorites from Jean — Frozen Hand (1983), Mirage (1994) and Nudes (1996) — are a good deal tamer, but nevertheless memorable. The first shows an ice-covered hand sticking out of the earth like a signpost, issuing what looks like a benediction to a flock of seagulls. The second, Mirage, combines views of two desert landscapes overlaid at the center with body-shaped swatches of blue sky that illusionistically pierce the picture plane and recall in shape the ANGEL
photograms Bruce made with Edmund Shea in the mid-1970s. Nudes derives its punch not so much from the image of two plastic milk jugs on a beach, but from the title, which forces you to see how those shapes, at the very bottom, vaguely resemble human buttocks. Blue Pyramid II (1978) shows Jean in a very different mood, fancifully toying with female stereotypes of the sort deployed in mid-20th century food and consumer goods advertising. If pictures like these leave you wanting more, well, there’s more ahead: The San José Museum of Art, in February 2022, will award Jean Conner a solo show, capping a short spell in which her work has been vaulted out of near obscurity and into prominent collections, including those of the Whitney Museum of American Art, SFMOMA and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Newfound recognition notwithstanding, the balance of the show is largely (and rightly) given over to Bruce Conner. No figure in 20th century American art has probed the recesses of the American psyche and the human condition with as much force, vision and truth-telling conviction. While his most powerful creations, the apocalyptic films and macabre assemblages, lay outside the purview of this show, their relationship to the inkblot and the felt-tip pen mandala drawings that are this exhibition’s main attraction cannot be overlooked or overstated.
A vision Conner had as an 11-year-old growing up in Wichita helps explain: “I was in my room in the house in late afternoon. Sun was shining through the window. I was lying on the floor and I was looking out across the rug at the light on the floor. I went into a state of consciousness that I couldn’t describe afterward. I changed. I changed physically, I changed conceptually, and it took hundreds of years. I changed and grew old, through all kinds of experiences, in worlds of totally different dimensions. And then I became aware of myself being in the room…I’m practically disintegrated. I’m an ancient person. My bones are falling apart. I can’t move…I didn’t understand what happened and I wanted to talk to someone about it. I couldn’t. There weren’t words to describe the experience. The only thing I could think of saying was that it was like a dream, but very real …There were,” he concluded, “so many things that were unknown secrets, that adult society knew, that they didn’t let children know about. I thought this was one of them.”
Conner would spend the remainder of his life trying to unlock those secrets in what became a mystical quest, one in which the inkblot and mandala drawings played vital roles. The first he made by drawing forms on sheets of paper and folding them innumerable times onto themselves to create mirror images,
each the product of precise placement and repetition. Laid out in grids of varying densities, they show forms that resemble scarabs, starbursts, ancient alphabets, snowflakes and botanical specimens. Some appear to mimic written language, but more often than not they frustrate the impulse to read, magnifying further the enigma of their creation.
The mandala drawings operate similarly. “Echoing forms seen in religious art from many traditions, I wrote in my review of the ICA show, “these dizzying topographies of interlinked marks connect in the manner of highly skewed labyrinths,” executed in many instances as allover drawings. “To look at them is to become lost in microscopic lines that form islands of positive and negative space. With no beginning and no end, they visualize infinity, making clear that it can’t be physically grasped, only grappled with. Thus, the question arises: how did Conner make them? Drugs? Conner said his experiments were influential, but he never worked while high; he said it was impossible.” Jean, I was recently told, disputed that assertion. Either way, you have to wonder how he summoned the concentration required. A large magnifying glass with a ring light certainly helped, but the real engagement was with light itself.
This brings us back to Conner’s films. “Different as drawing and filmmaking are,” I wrote in my earlier review, “Conner’s handling of them is of a piece. What they share is a penchant for ‘high-density narrative,’ ‘optical overload,’ and ‘persistence of vision’ — those being the terms the artist used to describe his films. That sensibility also pervades just about everything else Conner did, and why any discussion of his drawings necessarily has to involve the films. Forerunners of the modern music video that subverted the structural conventions of filmmaking and mass media propagandizing, they were among the first to employ stroboscopic jump cuts: fast-paced barrages of recognizable imagery intercut with stretches of black leader and blinding white light. The idea was to pile up retinal ‘afterimages’ that register subconsciously, forcing viewers to reconcile the seemingly incoherent pieces. That is what the brain does instinctively, and what filmmakers have always relied on to build or destroy narrative structure. Conner’s methods, as anyone who’s seen A Movie (1957) or Cosmic Ray (1961) can attest, were devastatingly effective for having stretched that capacity beyond what anyone thought possible.” If the inkblot and the mandala drawings perform this to a lesser degree, it’s only because the images are static, constrained only by their inability to activate the motion-sensing photoreceptors within the human optical nerve.
Assembled contains many odds and ends that don’t fit neatly into any sort of wide-angle narrative. The crosshatched 1963 drawing of a cat by Bruce, which could easily be mistaken for a bison standing on hind legs, and the engraving collage, The Pianoforte Sisters March 13, 1992 (1992), are two good examples. Several combinations yield amusing conjunctions. The best, but hardly the only one, is the side-by-side juxtaposition of airborne bodies seen in a 1978 punk rock photo by Bruce (Ointment March 9) with the image of a cannonballing swimmer by Jean that appears in Out of the Blue May 25, a clear nod to Yves Klein’s famous Leaping into the Void (1960). Other works by Bruce represent attempts to deflect attention away from himself and question conventional notions of authorship. These he made under pseudonyms (Anonymous, Anonymouse, Emily Feather and Signed in Blood) that fooled no one. In the end, what’s most apparent from Assembled is that Bruce Conner’s legacy, evidenced in the art he created in pursuit of life’s deepest mysteries, has only grown in stature since his death. That he’s now joined (and formally recognized) in that quest by his wife, Jean, is an added and unexpected pleasure.
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“Assembled: Bruce Conner / Jean Conner / Anonymous / Anonymouse / Emily Feather / Signed in Blood” @ Hosfelt Gallery through March 6, 2021.
About the author:
David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.