This fascinating first retrospective of the diverse oeuvre of Bruce Conner (1933-2008) contains more than 250 objects in many media — painting, film, video, assemblage, drawing, collage, print, photography, photogram and performance, which were mostly created in San Francisco over 50 years. Conner was a unique artist, and from all accounts, and as explained in the exhibit, he was a unique personality.
Conner was a prankster and gadfly who experimented with assorted art concepts and social causes all during his life. Twice he declared himself dead. In 1963, he made small white cards that he gave to friends that authorized, even encouraged, them to modify his artworks in museums. This was his annoyed response to a “Do Not Touch” sign on one of his pieces at the then San Francisco Museum of Art (now SFMOMA). Then there’s his (losing) 1967 campaign for San Francisco Supervisor. Note his baby picture on the advertising poster. Also, he painted “Blue Plate/Special” (1964), a paint-by-numbers version of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper,” from a hobby kit he purchased.
The wide-ranging, exciting and sometimes disturbing “Bruce Conner: It’s All True” begins with a one-room introduction that contains a variety of objects just to get spectators warmed up for what awaits them. For the remainder of the exhibit, viewers will wander through rooms that are largely chronological and mostly divided among the genres of Conner’s work. Conner’s inventive found-footage films, however, are interspersed throughout the show. Don’t miss them.
Famous and infamous for being a nonconformist, even among artists, Conner’s life was embodied by his art. When he first moved to San Francisco in 1957, Conner lived in the Western Addition, which was then undergoing urban renewal. Conner collected trash and building materials and amalgamated them into dark spooky assemblages as a comment against our consumerist society.
Of the many found assemblage pieces in the exhibit, the artist’s first one, “RATBASTARD” (1958) is indicative of the search for society’s detritus that he shared with the “Rat Bastard Protective Association,” a like-minded group of artists and poets. Conner continued his assemblage work until the early 1960s, composing dark menacing reliefs, sculptures and hangings, in which he incorporated a bizarre collection of smaller trash and daily objects, such as clothing, stockings, newspaper clippings, cigarette butts, nails, toys, costume jewelry, feathers and photos.
“CHILD,” first shown at San Francisco’s de Young Museum in 1959, a notoriously disturbing wax piece of a child the color of burned flesh in a high chair bound with nylon stockings, was created in response to the artist’s opposition to the execution of Caryl Chessman. Unfortunately the assemblage, made of ephemeral materials, fell almost completely apart, but it was recently restored by New York’s MOMA in a year-long project.
“REPORT” (1963-67), a film about John F. Kennedy’s assassination, is largely comprised of footage from recorded live broadcasts and the famous Zapruder film. The outrage and anger in the film still smarts. “CROSSROADS” (1976) is an intense and powerful film about the nuclear bomb. Conner obtained footage he used in the film from Operation Crossroads, a nuclear bomb test that the U.S. government undertook at Bikini Atoll in 1946.
Not all Conner’s films are fueled with shock and anger. “EASTER MORNING” (2008) is a meditative, mournful study of rebirth and renewal, and is accompanied by Terry Riley’s Minimalist piece, “In C” (1964). This film, his last, highlights the spiritual themes that run through Conner’s work, including his paintings with Christian themes, his byzantine, technically amazing, trance-inducing paper pieces, and his late collages that recompose biblical illustrations to add eagles and landmines.
This massive retrospective is a complete and complex survey of Conner’s work — it’s sometimes bizarre, occasionally upsetting, but always fascinating. Even after seeing it, it’s still impossible to categorize Conner as an artist. Perhaps that is why he is not better known, although I hope that this exhibit will cure that problem. For him, art was a means of expressing his social ideas and concerns. Conner never wanted to paint pictures that would look nice over your sofa.
I can’t help but wonder what Bruce Conner would have thought about this iconic exhibit.
By Emily S. Mendel
©Emily S. Mendel 2016 All Rights Reserved.