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Bruce Conner in the Cultural Breach : Decades of antagonizing the status quo has brought critical acclaim for the brilliant yet eccentric multimedia pioneer

June 10, 1990|KRISTINE McKENNA

Though Conner was making art from the time he arrived in San Francisco, his assemblage style didn't coalesce until 1959-61. Sinister, fetishistic reflections on consumerism and the destructive powers of time, this work incorporated decorative fragments, tattered scraps of memorabilia, mass-produced goods and erotic imagery. The binding agents he favored were wax and nylon stockings, which lent the pieces the quality of being ensnared in webs of death. A work from 1959 titled "Child" involves a charred, vaguely human form covered with wax and roughly strapped into a high chair; "Bride" from 1961 finds a figure ensnared in cobwebby nylon. His final assemblage "Looking Glass," completed in 1964, is a bleak reflection on feminine vanity. These pieces are widely regarded as Conner's greatest work, but he feels ambivalent about them and has disavowed them completely on several occasions.

"When I made those pieces I never conceived of any of them as finished," he explains. "I put a date and title on them when I first hung them on the wall, but the process wasn't finished for me at that point because one of my intentions was to create works that could evolve. I always expected my hand to be involved with the pieces again, and I sometimes sold them with the stipulation that I be allowed to rework them if I wanted to. Nonetheless, I lost control of most of them over the years. Maybe the original owner died or sold the piece or gave it to a museum--a lot of things happened.

"Consequently, there are a number of works of mine in museums that have been radically altered since I made them," he continues. "Conservators have their own sense of aesthetics and many of them have tampered with my work a lot. Maybe the piece had a nylon stocking in it with a hole in it-- they'll repair the hole. Or, a piece designed to move a bit will be mounted on a board and framed in a box. Maybe they won't like the angle of an object in the piece so they'll straighten it as though it were a picture on a wall. I have a real problem with the older work because much of it is not the way it's supposed to be."

Five years after moving to the Bay Area, Conner was getting a lot of positive feedback for these pieces, but by 1961 he was convinced the bomb was going to drop, so he moved to the mountains of Mexico to hide out. He found it hard to do work there, however, as there's no trash. "No one throws anything away there because people are very poor and they use every thing," he recalls.

After the birth of his son, Conner returned to the United States in 1962, first spending six months with his family in Wichita, then moving to Massachusetts at the invitation of Timothy Leary. He returned to San Francisco in 1965, and he's been there ever since, but for the occasional stint in Los Angeles to work on films.

Conner made his first film, "A Movie," in 1958. A startling bombardment of rapidly edited images, this, like all his films, is devoid of linear narrative and is designed to be understood on a subliminal level. As with his assemblages, he pieced his films together out of scavenged materials, and many of his movies explore the intermingling of sex, death and violence he sees as being central to American culture.

"Bruce's movies changed my entire concept of editing," says longtime friend Dennis Hopper, who contributed an essay to the catalogue for Conner's current show. "In fact, much of the editing of 'Easy Rider' came directly from watching Bruce's films, and, when I look at MTV, it seems they all must've been students of his."

Pals with a Hollywood contingent that included Hopper, Dean Stockwell, Warren Oates and Peter Fonda, Conner did pre-production work on Fonda's 1970 film "The Hired Hand" and briefly returned to filmmaking to do rock videos for Devo and David Byrne during the heyday of punk. He also has a partially completed documentary on the gospel group the Soul Stirrers that he hopes to finish, but he's washed his hands of the medium for the most part.

"I can't think of anything more devastating than working on a major commercial film," he says. "I spent several months in Hollywood during the early '70s working as an associate producer, and while I was there I saw all kinds of aggressive and self-destructive behavior. Plus, I saw what Dennis went through in the early '70s with 'Easy Rider,' and that was enough to stop me in my tracks. The hazards of fame are extreme."

Equally as hazardous for Conner are the dangers of art making.

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