Jean Conner was never a member of the infamous Rat Bastard Protective Association, which is odd because it was founded in 1957 by her husband, Bruce Conner. The legend of the Rat Bastards has been well told and often repeated, but until recently, the story of Jean Conner’s own artistic journey has been neglected, overshadowed by her flamboyant husband’s international reputation as a multi-media polymath. Bruce Conner died 2008 after a long illness, but before, during and after his passing, Jean Conner persisted in her own artistic practice, all the while contending with the demands of motherhood and caregiving. That persistence is now highlighted in a retrospective of 76 of her collages at the San Jose Museum of Art, spanning six full decades of production. The exhibition was curated by Rory Padeken and Kathryn Wade. It arrives in tandem with an upcoming exhibition of Jean Conner’s paintings and drawings at the Marin Museum of Contemporary Art, opening June 18.
The works included in the San Jose exhibition are modestly scaled and sometimes deliciously small, facilitating their seduction of curious viewers into their fanciful otherworldliness. This attribute connects Conner’s work to the longstanding tradition of Surrealism, in both its automatist and veristic aspects, simultaneously disrupting conventional streams of pictorial coherence while also adding manic elaborations to them. That influence is confirmed in an early work from 1960 titled TWO WAY COLLAGE, one of many that does so by taking images of Victorian furniture fragments and displaying them as upper and lower reflections of each other, creating a kind of funhouse mirror effect. Another work titled COLLAGE WITH DUTCH DOG (1966) conveys a topsy-turvy rendition of a 17th century Dutch interior, anchored by a friendly canine of the type that once symbolized fidelity. Other examples transform and break with that tradition, by looking outward to the ever-changing world rather than inward toward the subconscious imagination. POWER (1980), for example, shows a giant modern building dwarfing a figure under a tribal regalia. At other times, Conner’s collages capture the moment when Surrealism gave way to science fiction, as in HANDS (2013), wherein a dozen disembodied hands clasp each other to create an architectonic structure. DIVER and DIVERS (both 1982) also point to science fiction by featuring figures clad in antiquated undersea diving equipment of the type seen in the 1954 film Godzilla.
Conner created her work by mining popular photo magazines of the 1960s and 1970s, particularly “women’s magazines” such as Ladies’ Home Journal, which was printed in color long before picture magazines such as Life or Look followed suit. In addition to pioneering color printing (along with National Geographic), these magazines were over-the-top in their staging of photographic layouts of idealized domesticity, so much so that they oftentimes seemed to satirize what they pretended to be celebrating. Conner amplifies that kind of exaggeration in works such as FOOD LEVITATION (1981) and YUM! (2020), both of which equate femininity with food display. Although only a small portion of Conner’s collage practice echoes the fraught psychogeography of everyday domesticity — in, for example, Room (1966) and Hand Mirror* (1964) — there are plenty other examples that warrant consideration of her work as a forerunner to what Miriam Shapiro and Melisa Meyer in 1973 called Femmage, a collage idiom that evolved out of vernacular scrapbooking practices featuring patterned fabric pastiches. It garnered artworld attention because of its “transgressive” celebration of unabashed decoration in response to the alleged patriarchy of Greenbergian formalism. Other works such as BLUE PYRAMID (1970), UNTITLED (1970), UNTITLED (1978), UNTITLED (1980) and UNTITLED (1983), intimate different feminist attitudes by making exaggerated mischief with glamor images of smirking supermodels.
The exhibition at is organized into five thematic sub-groupings based on compatible subject matter, each featuring examples from multiple decades that show Conner returning to familiar and favorite themes. The curators have dubbed those subcategories Through the Looking Glass, Animal Kingdom/Flights of Fancy, Spiritual Realms, The World of Mad Men and On Screen. They are all serviceable as categorical subdivisions of the exhibition, giving viewers pathways to understanding the affinity systems that inform many of the works. Yet, it also bears mentioning that, in many cases, individual examples of Conner’s work could fit into more than one of those pigeonholes.
Spiritual Realms, the largest of these sections, features the most elaborate works in the exhibition. Many reach back to ancient mystery religions, as exemplified by UNTITLED (February 8) (2013). It shows Buddhist monks climbing the stairs of an ancient temple positioned in front of a representation of a crucifixion adorned with a large flower. In VENUS (1969), to take another example, the image of a woman emerges from the ocean, stepping between the towering spires of Sagrada Familia Cathedral as if it were a mere sandcastle. THE TEMPTATION OF SAINT WALLACE (1961) appears in the section titled Mad Men’s World, even though it reflects traditional portrayals of the Temptation of Saint Anthony, making it seem better suited for Spiritual Realms. This hyper-elaborated work is an obvious homage to Wallace Berman, who was considered by some to be the original prophet of the 1950s California counterculture. He’s pictured here as a head exploding from a fever of contradictory image fragments. This and the other collages in the Spiritual Realms section are more heavily worked than most of the other collages, jumping back and forth from a kind of cryptic medievalism to a baroque horror vacui and back again without touching on any of the art historical increments in between.
Still, the sharpest single difference between the contemporaneous productions of Bruce and Jean Conner lies in her emphasis on cheerful and ebullient color, a sharp contrast to the psychological darkness of Bruce’s pre-1964 work, as well as his subsequent tendency to work almost exclusively in black and white. Bruce was variously identified as a “Dachau Playboy” or a “Baudelairian Satanist” throughout that part of his career, while Jean preferred to make her collages on the sunny side of the cut-and-paste street. Many works, such as Easter (1981) or Tomato Soup (1960) are sumptuous banquet pictures formulated from rich appetizing colors, while others are homages to the rich hues of natural marvels, such as SLEEPING CAT and NORTHERN FROG (both 1981) and FEATHERS (1980). Certainly, there are exceptions to this generalization, such as the black-and-white EUCALYPTUS GROVE (1960), or the clown-faced ANDALUSIAN DOG from 1958, but the prevailing mood is one of wonder and optimism, with a few forays in the direction of humor. One of these is titled NIXON (1959), showing the former vice president sitting in the back seat of a limousine, no doubt scheming up his first presidential bid while the head of a football player impinges upon the scene. More humor can be witnessed in TWO NUDISTS AT THE BEACH (1996), wherein a pair of identical milk containers uncannily suggest sun worshipers viewed from the rear as they contemplate surf conditions and a setting sun.
The earliest work in the exhibition, SEND MONEY (1957), measures just 14 x 16 inches. It the only piece in the exhibition executed on a rigid support to incorporate oil paint, which the artist applied in thick abstract expressionist gestures that crest to meet collage elements like buoys suspended atop waves in a turbulent sea. Her use of that texture is anomalous because everything else on view exhibits a high level of craft in which collage elements are cut with exacting precision and affixed with care to make the junctures of form, shape and connotation appear seamless. In that way, the works’ surfaces seem homogenous, almost as if the component pieces were assembled in Photoshop and output as digital files. At the same time, it is impossible to miss the hand-crafted character of Conner’s collages. They are all very much of a time and a place, bubbling with invention and authenticity representing a classic San Francisco psychedelia that ardently defied the deathly geometry of minimalist reductivism.
Jean Conner: “Collage” @ San Jose Museum of Art through September 25, 2022.
*HAND MIRROR appears only in the exhibition catalog, not the show.
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About the author:
Mark Van Proyen’s visual work and written commentaries emphasize the tragic consequences of blind faith in economies of narcissistic reward. Since 2003, he has been a corresponding editor for Art in America. His recent publications include: Facing Innocence: The Art of Gottfried Helnwein (2011) and Cirian Logic and the Painting of Preconstruction (2010). To learn more about Mark Van Proyen, read Alex Mak’s interview on Broke-Ass Stuart’s website.