By Starr Jiang
Running from now until January 22, 2017, Bruce Conner’s posthumous exhibit at the SF MOMA, “It’s All True,” features work spanning the entirety of his 50-year career. Provocative but poignant, chaotic but contained, his art is a convoluted journey of self-discovery in a catalyzing Cold War era.
Collage is the driving vehicle of Conner’s work; it’s a metaphor for his themes of transformation out of disorder. His first film, titled “A MOVIE” (1958), captures the cultural metamorphosis that occurred as a consequence of the early Cold War through a collage of newsreel clips and B-movie excerpts from the 1920s. The result is smorgasbord of sex, explosions and dead bodies set against a cinematic movie score reminiscent of the silent movie era. Today, the closest thing to “A MOVIE” would probably be the trailer of the next Michael Bay blockbuster. But Conner’s work is neither maudlin nor egotistical. He is acutely self-aware in his approach, playing irony and dark humor to weave together his chaotic yet reflective themes. “A MOVIE” ends with a shot of sunlight glinting on water, a reflection — or perhaps a yearning — of silent resolve after the war.
In “Assemblages” (1958-64) and “Dark Sculptures” (1959-63), Conner continues to reference the decay of society and culture. With “Assemblages,” Conner introduced his now iconic portable art, ravaging paintings he no longer cared for with garbage, costume jewelry, pinups and a nylon stocking “carrying case.” His work in this era raged with apprehension of model femininity alongside the gilded decadence of ’20s cinema. While utilizing the same materials and techniques as “Assemblages,” “Dark Sculptures” is visually much darker, channeling the culture of fear and violence during the early decades of the Cold War.
Despite these thematic differences, it’s precisely this evolving cloud of fear that ties Conner’s work together. Fear strangles the contorted mannequin of “LOOKING GLASS” (1964), oozes from the deformed, half-dead doll of “Child” (1959) and simmers in the nuclear aftermath of “Dark Brown” (1959). As much as Conner tried to relate his work to the world at large, the fear he channeled is a greater reflection of his own identity crisis. By creating the torn photographs, dumpster detriment and wretched sculptures, Conner not only disassembled his space but also disassembled himself in order to find where he belonged in this age of invisible turmoil.
The lack of resolution presented by his self-reflection in this era resulted in Conner’s more intimate confrontation with the matter in the 1970s. In “Angels” (1973-75), he produced a series of inverted silhouettes by positioning himself in front of photosensitive paper while projecting himself with light. As the series progresses, the silhouettes compress, pretzel-twist and blur, eventually disintegrating into some absurd dashes of light. His themes of existentialism continue in “Punk Photo Collages” (late 1970s), where he shredded pictures he took of the San Francisco punk scene in the ’70s and reconstructed them into shattered memorials for the punk artists who died, most commonly, of drug overdoses.
Reflecting on his own struggle to construct a multifold artistic identity, Conner unveils the destruction that comes with crafting a persona on a public stage and asks the ultimate question: How will you break yourself for the sake of art? The question haunts, and the answer is probably violent, but in both “Angels” and “Punk Photo Collages,” Conner treats the issue with tenderness and honesty. Especially in “Punk Photo Collages,” Conner highlights the vibrant passion the punk artists had for their art, bringing forth snapshots of headbanging guitarists and singers out of the fractured battlefield of black and white.
The exhibit concludes with the last film Conner ever finished: “EASTER MORNING” (2008). Rehashing old footage from a previous work, “EASTER MORNING RAGA” (1968), the film is Conner’s last word, a photograph of the intersection of spirituality and the self. Structurally, “EASTER MORNING” is fashioned in Conner’s typical style: a kaleidoscope of existing and found material, of things that weren’t meant to work together but somehow do. Yet the tone is subdued, even peaceful, and the undertones of violence have all but disappeared. I can’t help but think that this is the end Conner’s artistic career deserved — not a bang, not a question mark, but a sigh of relief.
Conner’s work is neither neat nor pretty; he doesn’t tie up loose ends and actually prefers not to. But what comes through his meandering artistic journey is how essential self-destruction is to rediscovering and redefining the self. Maybe Conner never came to terms with the multiple personas he created in his lifetime, but he sure did understand the brutality of growing up — and that’s relevant whether we are artists or not.
“It’s All True” is messy, even incoherent in how it gets to the point, but it gets there; that’s what matters. We, too, are as lost and perplexed as Conner’s art. We, too, are striving for labels that are all too many and unattainable. Conner shows us that chaos is the point.
Contact Starr Jiang at yuchenj ‘at’ stanford.edu.