Bruce Conner. November 18, 1933 - July 7, 2008
In the late 50s, Conner leapt in with the Beats in San Francisco and the likes of Wallace Berman and Jay DeFeo, rendering the wild, wide-eyed, post-Whitman Americanism in sculpture form, building masses of glorious, luminous browns and muted citrus color, out of discarded nylons and clothing. Many times these were suspended, hanging in the air like a chrysalis, tellingly waiting for the art world to catch up with his thinking, for just the right time to let the fullness of his vision bloom.
For you see, Conner was a true multi-media artist. His work spanned painting, drawing, conceptual art, performance art and, most famously, experimental film. The thing that separates Conner from other art school brats is that he always had an eye for accessibility in his work, one that could see through the trends of the day and illuminate the soft part of the American belly – the place where we were at our most tender and most vulnerable.
His short film accompanying Brian Eno and David Byrne’s much lauded "America is Waiting" from My Life in the Bush of Ghosts is a fine example of his strategies. Here he stitches together war footage, close-ups of instrumentation panels, the movement of machinery to mimic the lava flow of destruction that is war. Similarly, his more playful 1966 film Breakaway, featuring a ravishing young Toni Basil in
cutaway hippie gear and undergarments, gyrating away in flickering jump cuts has a similar effect. He is chipping away at the patina of flower power, letting the sex appeal of the youth counterculture – its most reliable power source and asset – be amplified by the fracturing of the times. A simple smart move is that at the halfway mark, the film and song reverses, revealing both the flimsiness and the universality of his subject.
Conner was a master at the simple smart move. In 1966, he crafted an offset lithograph, black text on a white background that simply said “APPLAUSE.” Like all truly good conceptual art, the joke behind it is multi-faceted and cuts deep– on the surface, it mimicked the “Applause” signs that cued live studio audiences to clap in the live television era, a necessity when the producers of the medium realized they were embarking on an epic journey of not exactly entertaining people that has resulted in the anesthetized media culture we have today. But it cuts deeper. By keeping the message still, or perpetually “on,” the viewer is compelled to either comply or refuse, but their action is mediated by the art. The young artists of today whose bloodless video projections are screened on Bruce Conner’s back would do well to look away from their phones for a second and applaud the life and work of this underappreciated master.
(Above; still from A Movie, by Bruce Conner, 1956. Click here to view the film at http://dekku.blogspot.com)