One night, a neighbor found Nasrudin on his hands and knees, searching for something on the ground. What have you lost, Mullah? asked the neighbor.
My key, said Nasrudin.
After a few minutes of searching, the neighbor asked, Where did you drop it?
Then why, for heavens sake, are you searching here?!
There is more light here.
--from The Subtleties of
the Incomparable Nasrudin
Bruce Conner is a contrary man. In 1959, he sent out black-edged invitations to a show of paintings by the Late Bruce Conner. That same year, he began a work-to-rule campaign over his New York dealer Charles Alans insistence that the artist sign his paintings on the front of the canvas, by signing them in such unlikely places and near-microscopic cursive that he had to draw maps to each autographs location. By the next year, Conner was refusing to sign any works, but gamely tried to oblige Alan by providing him with a rubber stamp of his signature, encouraging the dealer to stamp it on my work, other peoples work, or anything. In the early 60s, he retreated to the hills of Mexico to wait out the impending nuclear holocaust, but soured on the survivalist trip after a year. Throughout this period, when approached for photographs of himself he would refuse, or send a photo of someone or something else, or stage publicity shoots with a stand-in. He even sent a ringer out to give lectures as Bruce Conner, years before Warhol gained notoriety for the same stunt. In 1964, having achieved an unprecedented degree of acceptance in the art world for a West Coast assemblage sculptor, he abandoned his signature nostalgia-curdled biomorphic agglomerations of thrift-store sweepings to focus on filmmaking.
The same year, in a failed attempt to torpedo his burgeoning reputation as an experimental filmmaker, he subjected audiences to a 35-minute-long loop of stock film leader counting down from 10 to 3 over and over. While the few screenings did, in fact, provoke riotous negative audience consensus, Conners reputation as a provocateur auteur only emerged enhanced. In 1967, he assembled a series of Surrealist-tinged engraving collages dangerously reminiscent of (though ultimately better than) similar work by Max Ernst, and pitched them to his L.A. gallerist to be presented as The Dennis Hopper One-Man Show, with no public indication of their true authorship. The dealer passed. Conner temporarily abandoned filmmaking and his last tenuous links with the art world to participate in the North American Ibis Alchemical Light Companys psychedelic light shows at the Avalon Ballroom and conduct a campaign for San Francisco city supervisor that included speeches consisting of lists of desserts (delicious enough to garner him more than 5,000 votes), while supporting himself as a janitor and salesman in a knickknack shop. He didnt show for four years. He listed himself in Whos Who in American Art as deceased. But he just kept going, re-emerging with several seemingly discrete bodies of work over the next couple of decades, including more films, more collaged engravings, documentary photos of the San Francisco punk scene, and hundreds of intricate inkblot drawings.
Given this contrariness, it isnt surprising that Conners retrospective, 2000 BC: The Bruce Conner Story Part II, is conspicuously designated Not a Retrospective. And while Conners oppositional engagement with both the art world and received notions of authorship and identity would provide a substantial structure for a career survey (and do indeed constitute one of several themes running through the exhibit), the truly extraordinary aspect of Conners oeuvre is the breadth and depth of sensually engaging, intellectually surprising, formally virtuosic work to fall out from a position of such conceptual rigor.
For starters, there are the assemblage sculptures that made him famous. The power of Conners gooey, sparkly, bittersweet confections is apparent in their ability to overcome the dismissive filters resulting from decades worth of formulaic undergraduate imitators armed with old wood, lacy underwear, newspaper clippings and gallons of murky polyurethane. Mutating Kurt Schwitters sedate formal deliberations into seething psychedelic reliquaries for abandoned cultural minutiae, Conner single-handedly forged a strikingly androgynous American art vernacular (his soft, ephemeral craft projects undermined the macho welded-girder sculptural standards of the day) that hovers impossibly between figuration and abstraction, narrative and decoration, morbid nostalgia and wallowing hedonism.
These works alone would have been enough to secure him a revered place in art history, but, by applying the same scavenger aesthetics to another medium entirely, Conner managed to both revolutionize that medium and establish a largely separate audience and artistic persona as an experimental filmmaker. Assembled from cheap mass-produced movies sold for home viewing, A Movie is widely considered Conners single most important artwork. Apart from inadvertently becoming a touchstone for the current strain of sample-happy artmaking that keeps intellectual-property lawyers in the money, A Movie was an unprecedented structuralist investigation of the formal and narrative conventions of Hollywood. Experimental filmmaking before Conner had sought to establish a parallel culture, one that embraced irrationality, subjectivity and forbidden topics. A Movie showed that, viewed from the proper perspective, the cinema that surrounds us already contains these elements and more.