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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

"During the '60s I'd get up in the morning and work on projects all day long and well into the night," he recalls. "Films, collages, drawings, music--there was a lot going on. By the end of the '60s I'd developed so many dimensions of myself that I had 15 different personalities at war trying to dominate this body. One guy was a filmmaker and wanted to make his movies, another guy did drawings, another did assemblage and so on. I couldn't turn any of them off, and it became difficult for me to walk out the door and look at a plant without my consciousness warring as to how the plant was going to be looked at and used. I didn't want to be obsessed with how to use the world, and that's part of my ambivalence towards my art work. I finally managed to shut the voices up, mostly by ignoring them. I basically stopped doing art work, and when I felt the urge to make a piece I just waited until the feeling went away."

Though the assemblages stopped in 1964 and Conner officially withdrew from "public art" in 1966, he has continued to do drawings throughout his career. The most overtly mystical of his work, his drawings offer a fascinating peek at the obsessive side of his nature. Often based on mandalas, his drawings frequently involve manic patterning so dense as to approximate volcanic slag. Rooted in psychedelia and the art of India and the East, Conner's drawings ricochet from the microcosm to the macrocosm. He's also continued to work on collage engravings made from imagery snipped from turn of the century periodicals. (A selection of recently completed previously unexhibited engravings are included in the Kohn exhibition.)

Conner's last burst of intense art activity came in 1978 when he became involved in the San Francisco punk scene as a staff photographer for fanzine Search and Destroy. A corrosive aesthetic of outraged idealism that Conner had anticipated by decades, punk was tailor-made to his sensibility, and he spent most of 1978 at a punk club called the Mabuhay.

"I lost a lot of brain cells at the Mabuhay," he laughs. "During that year I had a press card so I got in free, and I'd go four or five nights a week. What are you gonna do listening to hours of incomprehensible rock 'n' roll but drink? I became an alcoholic, and it took me a few years to deal with that.

"Many of the punk pictures look carefully composed, but I didn't futz around with the images after I shot them, and if they didn't work out perfectly I threw them away," he adds. "There aren't many that I saved. A lot of people seem to feel that these photographs have nothing to do with the rest of my work, but if I hadn't done the collages and assemblage I never could've spontaneously composed these photographs as I did. But, people's reluctance to accept this work as fine art is very much in keeping with art world thinking.

"Being an artist is like being a medieval craftsman," he continues. "You're expected to do one thing only, and many artists function like someone producing a line of cars. They stick with one style, and while next year's model will be a bit different, it won't differ too much from the original prototype. But I couldn't conceive of restricting myself to one medium because the medium dictates how you see things. A sculptor, for instance, sees the world in terms of three-dimensional forms. This is one of the limitations of consciousness, and my way of getting around it was to develop different media almost as if I were another artist. This confused a lot of people, and they couldn't see any connection between the various bodies of work I've done. For me, however, there's a clear relationship between all these forms.

"I used to be concerned that people didn't understand my work as I did, and I worked hard to land a major museum exhibition in hopes that would clarify things a bit. But I found museum people to be so bound by the requirements of curatorship that they couldn't deal with my work. Their attitude is: 'We want to show every last assemblage you did before 1964 and maybe we'll put in a few drawings, but we're not interested in the rest of your work.' "

Highly ambivalent about the museum system and how art history comes to be written, Conner is even more ambivalent about artworks themselves.

"I've always been uneasy about being identified with the art I've made," he concludes. "Art takes on a power all its own and it's frightening to have objects floating around the world with my name on them that people are free to interpret and use however they choose. Beyond that, I've seen many cases where artists have been defeated because the objects they made came to be perceived as being more important then they themselves were. De Chirico struggled to develop a new style of painting, but nobody was interested--they only wanted to show his own work. This is something I've experienced myself, and it's a highly unbalanced situation because essentially the artist is denied a voice about the course of his own life and work. This is something I wrestled with for years, and I finally decided I wasn't interested in fighting with my own work anymore."

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