Courtesy Kohn Turner Gallery

ARTIST BRUCE CONNER TELLS A STORY THAT CONVEYS everything you need to know about “Looking for Mushrooms,” an exhibition of 35 drawings he completed in the '60s, which is currently on display at Kohn Turner Gallery.

“When I was 11 years old, I was in my room late one afternoon and the sun was shining in through the window,” recalls the 65-year-old artist during an interview by phone from his home in San Francisco. “I was lying on the floor looking at the light on the rug, and I went into a state of consciousness that I couldn't describe afterward. I changed. I changed physically and conceptually. It took hundreds of years, I grew old, and I moved through worlds of totally different dimensions. Then I again became aware of myself being in a room. 'Here I am in a room,' I thought, 'and I'm enormously old. How can I get up? I've practically disintegrated. I'm an ancient person and my bones are falling apart.' Then I looked down at my hands and saw that they were not old. I knew I was an ancient person, but I didn't look that way.

“I didn't understand what had happened and wanted to talk to somebody about it, but I couldn't, because there were no words to describe the experience,” he continues. “I realized then that there were unknown secrets society discourages us from acknowledging to ourselves and to each other, and that this was one of them.”

The secret Conner stumbled across was the human capacity to pierce the veil of consciousness, and it's a secret that shaped his life. Born in Kansas in 1933, Conner moved in 1957 to San Francisco, where he became one of the founding fathers of the school known as Bay Area Funk. Inspired by various strains of mysticism, organic hallucinogenics, jazz, poetry, Dada and Oriental philosophy, Conner was a beatnik, then a hippie, then a punk, and has positioned himself far outside the mainstream throughout his life. A leading experimental filmmaker of the '50s and '60s, he's an accomplished sculptor, and was making conceptual art long before that was recognized as a legitimate style. The through line in his diverse body of work is that mind-blowing afternoon in a child's bedroom, when the doors of perception opened to Conner and he saw the microcosm and the macrocosm merge.

That experience is certainly central to the work on view at Kohn Turner Gallery, which was largely begun in 1960 and completed in 1968. During those years, Conner bounced from San Francisco to Mexico City to Wichita to Brookline, Massachusetts, and he needed to travel light, so he turned to that most portable of mediums, paper and ink. Executed in pencil, felt-tip watercolor, or pen and ink, his black-and-white drawings are essentially force fields composed of spirals and vortexes, which, as they evolved, grew increasingly dense.

Drawing also offered Conner a welcome respite from the complex assemblages he'd been producing up to that point. Using found materials — broken mannequins, torn nylon hose, old toys, etc. — Conner created sinister three-dimensional pieces that pulsated with the mood of dread and paranoia that hung over America like a poisoned fog during the bomb-obsessed '50s. Despite the fact that Conner had abandoned the style altogether by 1964, those savagely brilliant assemblages continue to be his most critically acclaimed work.

“I stopped making assemblage because physically I couldn't take care of the work,” explains the artist, who'll be the subject of a retrospective that opens at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis in October. “I'd have a show of maybe a dozen pieces, and all but one or two would come back to me, and they were not meant to return to me. They were intended to go out and be on their own. That work was also about the illusion of permanence, the passage of time and the human tendency to become attached to objects. People become laden down with property and end up being slaves to objects they can't get rid of. This process was turning back on me in that I couldn't get rid of the assemblages, so in a sense they were failing.”

Whereas Conner's grisly assemblages are freighted with the weight of the world, his drawings are lighter than air — a shift in tone that indicates a change in his intentions as an artist.

“I'd never been able to communicate what I'd experienced as a child to anybody, because there was no language for it, so I suppose you could describe these drawings as an attempt to communicate this experience to other people,” he explains. “I needed to find out what had happened to me as a child, and whether it was something other people experienced too.

“During those years I worked a lot with pencil because it's very malleable, and I was trying to draw out things I felt were embedded within the paper. Several of the drawings are loosely configured in the mandala form, but I don't think they're classic mandalas — I don't see too many people praying to them,” he laughs. “Others grew out of an attempt to create images where the black and the white coexisted in equal proportion to one another. Those particular drawings were inspired by looking at patterns in nature — minerals, stones, plants, patterns on animals, the way wood grain is configured. As a child I'd look at wood grain and see insane faces staring back at me. The wood seemed to be almost alive, and it bothered me, yet it fascinated me too, and I wanted to delve deeper into it and see how that related to my own consciousness.

“I used felt-tip watercolor pens for some of the drawings, because they allowed me to continue drawing for long stretches without lifting the pen off the paper. I was interested in patterns that exist in the body at a very deep level and express themselves in the kind of unconscious doodling we often engage in while talking on the phone. The Surrealists called it automatic writing, and I was attempting to do something similar by putting myself in a sort of distracted or meditational frame of mind.

“In short, I was trying to make drawings that would help me discover what was happening in my consciousness,” he concludes. “This is an area of inquiry that subsequently became associated with head-shop art and psychedelia, but I've never liked that term in relation to art, largely because when you take psychedelics you can't differentiate between art and non-art. These drawings have nothing to do with that arena of activity; I prefer to describe them as maps of my nervous system.”

That Conner's cryptic maps resonate with a note of familiarity suggests they're about a good deal more than that.

LOOKING FOR MUSHROOMS: Bruce Conner Drawings 1960­1968 | At KOHN TURNER GALLERY | 454 N. Robertson Blvd. | Through May 1

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