ART REVIEWS : Bruce Conner: The Artist as Scavenger

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A demonic undercurrent surfaces in Bruce Conner's otherwise extremely elegant abstract drawings. Spanning three decades, his works on paper in this museum-quality exhibition at Michael Kohn Gallery show the artist to be making some of the best work of his career.

Conner came to prominence in the early '60s with a dark body of work made from the damaged scraps of a throw-away society. His assemblages consisted of personal mementoes scavenged from the garbage and affixed to other bits of rubbish. He often bound these awkward structures of junk with torn nylons, fragments of string and strips of cloth, giving them the unsettling presence of bandaged wounds, trussed-up hussies and cobweb-covered altars.

Injury, sex, religion and memory thus infect one another in Conner's hauntingly volatile early works. His forlorn, sometimes morbid assemblages dig up elements of society missing from the dominant images that define a '50s version of carefree middle-class existence. Prosperity's roots in violence--in the horror and devastation of World War II--are revealed. His works expose a nightmare repressed by the American Dream: consumerism and planned obsolescence leave little room for idiosyncracy and imagination.

His recent pen-and-ink and "inkblot" drawings give free reign to these dark vicissitudes at the basis of creativity. The 47 images in his exhibition represent a mad collaboration with urges ungoverned by social constraints.

Although Conner's works on paper reject direct social commentary, they never indulge narcissism or celebrate the artist's ego. On the contrary, they preserve the power of his assemblages, which he hasn't made since 1964.

Some of Conner's earliest drawings look like the brain's fingerprints. Made up of tiny black lines, they are incredibly intricate mazes that go everywhere and nowhere at once. As if tracing warped circuitry, their passages meander all over the page but follow no purpose other than their own anti-rational whims.

Likewise, Conner's most recent drawings resemble fantastic insects, imaginary genitals or the electronic aliens that attack the players of many video games. To make them, he folds the paper up like an accordion, causing the wet splotches of ink to double along perfectly vertical columns.

Today, when art's relation to society has changed, Conner's abstract images more adequately manifest his furtive, perverse and apocalyptic vision. They give form to his fascination with transformation, his fixation on slight mutations carried to absurd extremes.

Conner's blotted drawings suggest that a patient has seized control and begun to design his own, more beautiful Rorschach tests. His works on paper take their revenge upon established authority by turning society's rules inside out. They manipulate its dominant language until it becomes a private dialect that serves the artist's own secret purposes.

* Michael Kohn Gallery, 920 Colorado Ave., Santa Monica, (213) 393-7713, through Oct. 26. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Rewards of Revisionism: Michael Gonzalez's 11 small "Eraser Pictures" at Thomas Solomon's Garage cleverly revise art history. With wit, ingenuity and precision, they play out some formal conundrums that once animated American abstract painting.

He takes translucent rectangular erasers, slices them lengthwise and fits them, like puzzle pieces, into larger silicone or urethane rectangles. He then presses these subtly colored synthetic fields between sheets of glass and Plexiglas. Metal clips hold the pristine units together and allow them to be hung and transported with ease.

The erasers simultaneously read as flat, immaterial images and as solid, chunky objects. In Gonzalez's curious works, the fiction of illusionism and the fact of the material world dovetail but do not dissolve into one another. The distinction between the images and their frames is problematized, not resolved: the glass panes are both integral parts of the works and secondary, protective coverings.

In contrast, but also in homage, to Color Field painting, Gonzalez's high-tech substitutes for oil on canvas eschew that art's overblown claims about the "purity" of aesthetic experience while they deliver the pleasures of that perhaps not so moribund tradition.

In the past, the way a painting resolved its internal relationships--between figure and ground, volume and plane, object and image--determined whether it succeeded or failed as a work of art. Gonzalez turns these tired formalist issues into a funny but effective game that combines the charm of John Cage with the playful rigor of Matisse.

Unlike most art that acknowledges the commodification of experience, Gonzalez's never claims that our complex visual culture automatically rules out the value of optical acuteness. Romantic and critical, his art accepts painting's diminished role, but refuses to let this fact become the basis for cynicism--for the smug certainty that individual acts don't matter and that an art form can be pronounced dead before it is even seen.

* Thomas Solomon's Garage, 928 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles, (213) 654-4731, through Sept. 29. Closed Mondays.

A Machine-Shop Palette: Jill Giegerich's image-object hybrids push abstract painting back to its Cubist moment at the beginning of this century. They also pull this art out of its unfairly beleaguered position in contemporary artistic discussions. Her three-dimensional collages tease out the differences between painting and sculpture to undermine some fundamental oppositions that keep art apart from life.

Giegerich builds her rugged constructions out of ordinary industrial materials. An inventory of her media reads like a machine-shop's supply list: sandpaper, asphalt primer, plywood, cork, fiberglass, vinyl, rubber, copper, brass, shellac, plastic, wax, contact cement and hot glue.

However, these unromantic raw materials take on a lyrical lightness. Juxtaposed according to formal qualities such as surface, texture, edge and depth, they begin to serve illusionism's ends.

Giegerich catches these materials between their practical past as no-nonsense elements of industry and their unknowable future as enigmatics objects of art. Her works neither deny narrative associations nor flinch from the rigors of formalist criticism. Off-balanced yet poised, they stake out their own territory between these exclusionary models of interpretation.

Giegerich does not so much transform her materials into finished products, as arrange them in seemingly temporary, shifting configurations which seem capable of rearranging themselves. Their mobility gives her works an openness that invites chaos into the picture.

Unconcerned with ultimate resolutions, her deceptively neutral constructions require work from the viewer. Never burdensome, they generously repay this labor with the pleasures of play and discoveries of unforeseen relations in a world of unpredictable flux.

* Fred Hoffman Gallery, 912 Colorado Ave., Santa Monica, (213) 394-4199, through Oct. 12. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Pop Goes His Easel: This selective retrospective of Color Field paintings by Canada's Jack Bush (1909-77) charts the consistent development, from 1960-76, of his somewhat eccentric but hardly distinctive style.

If Bush's competent paintings derive from America's dominant model of formalist abstraction from that era, they also reveal that American criticism during formalism's heyday ignored Color Field's indebtedness to Pop art.

The strongest component of Bush's sometimes tough but too often merely pretty canvases is their palette. Almost all these works flaunt Pop's hot synthetic colors.

Although Bush's compositions never catapult his works into the territory of artistic originality, his colors exaggerate those used by his American counterparts. They reveal that formalist abstraction's appeal lies not in the purity of vision, but in the optical punch of advertising and design--the tainted practices that grab one's eye and secure one's mind.

* Salander-O'Reilly Galleries, 456 N. Camden Drive, Beverly Hills, (213) 879-6606, through Sept. 28. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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