Like an altar built in annual observance of the Day of the Dead, an assemblage sculpture built from cast-off junk by Bruce Conner looks time squarely in the face. There amid the decay, the maw of death yawns wide. And so, as the only cogent response, the artist invites us to luxuriate in the sumptuous, sensuous stuff of life.
This potent dynamic also operates in Conner's landmark short film, bluntly titled "A Movie" (1958). A justly famous 12-minute extravaganza of disjunctive black-and-white pictures, the film is filled with scenes of disaster (mostly man-made), carnage, failed rescue attempts and the sudden appearance of an ominous title card announcing "The End" long before the film's conclusion. His sculptures were assembled from discarded objects scavenged in urban dumpsters, and "A Movie" was similarly put together from industrial leftovers--film leader, stock footage, Hollywood clips and other "found images," none of which were originally photographed by the artist. In 1958, when the new era of television was taking off, film embodied the fading technological aura of the past.
Death gives life meaning in a Conner assemblage, whether sculpture or film. While the cold glimpse of mortality can make the small hairs bristle on the back of your neck, this metaphysical fact offers an inescapable comfort, too.
What's a bit harder to imagine is this: Conner made "A Movie" and his first assemblage sculpture at the shockingly youthful age of 25. (He's 66 now.) The large and remarkable survey of his work that opened Sunday at the Museum of Contemporary Art shows that early in his artistic life Conner found the spiritually potent path his work would take during the next four decades. Everything is a variation on the theme.
Lots of experimentation with materials is evident in this work, but so is a clear thread of continuity. The exhibition, deftly organized by Minneapolis' Walker Art Center and concluding its national tour in a beautifully installed presentation at MOCA, reveals what I think of as a kind of "secular Catholicism" at work in Conner's art. Whether the Wichita-born artist, who has worked mostly in San Francisco since moving there in 1957, was raised with a particular religious affiliation I do not know. But signs of it are everywhere, including the survey's odd title: "2000 BC: The Bruce Conner Story, Part II."
Conner's assemblages often recall shrines and reliquaries. (Incidentally, an excellent show featuring several early assemblages and recent inkblot drawings is also on view at Kohn Turner Gallery.) The sculptures are elaborate containers for ordinary relics left behind in the mundane passages of modern life. America's economic prosperity in the 1950s was the source of something hitherto unknown in the world--a proliferation of trash, the residue of booming commercial culture. Conner gathered up the corpse and gave it new life. The procedure recalls Dr. Frankenstein, who is seen harnessing an electrical storm in "A Movie."
In 1974 and 1975 Conner made a series of unique prints whose subject matter is ethereal angels. Standing in front of light-sensitive photographic paper, the artist would arrange his body in a variety of ways before exposing the paper to bright light. When developed, the paper would be black where it had been exposed to light, and gray where Conner's body stood between the light source and the paper. Where his body touched it, the paper glows pure white.
This quiet evocation of the transformational power of "the artist's touch" recalls the noli me tangere, Christ's post-Resurrection warning to Mary Magdalene against touching him. Common to Baroque painting, the theme takes a witty, Minimalist turn in Conner's 1964 work, "Touch/Do Not Touch." Twelve white canvases, each bearing the carefully lettered admonition, "Do Not Touch," lead to a 13th, which offers the word, "Touch." This last canvas, though, is sealed behind a protective sheet of glass; touching the art is simultaneously safe and impossible. The allusion to Christ and the apostles in the number of panels is obvious; but so is the pointed erasure of specific religious iconography in favor of secular aesthetic experience.
Humor is common in Conner's work. In 1967 he ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, and a poster from his campaign features a photograph of the candidate as a small boy. "And a little child shall lead them," as the Bible of course foretold.
Often, the collages Conner made from wood engravings culled from books begin with religious imagery. Dating since the early 1980s, these include an extensive series from the life of Christ. (A miraculous object like a halo will be rendered as an industrial gear or other machine part, in the manner of Duchamp.) Recalling Conner's pointed use of film in a television age, old engravings hark from a time before photographic reproductions appeared in books.
The careful juxtaposition of mediums new and old can generate a productive shudder, as Conner made explicit in "Television Assassination" (1963-64). Like his haunting film, "Report" (shown daily at 2 p.m. in the MOCA auditorium, on a program with other Conner films), this powerful, rarely seen installation centers on the murder of President Kennedy.
Conner filmed directly off a television set during network coverage surrounding the traumatic event. The result is carefully edited footage with an ethereal, overexposed glow. He heightens the otherworldly appearance by projecting the film in super-slow motion onto the painted screen of a vintage television set. (Notably, the set's electrical cord has been cut.) Chugging along at just eight frames per second, the now familiar scenes from Dallas seem to be unfolding in a magical state of suspended animation. The film uncannily recalls the utterly disorienting experience of the actual event.
And more wry humor shows up, too. In 1967 Conner made a series of intricate drawings using black felt-tip pens, which were then a new invention. He'd draw a random line, then continue without lifting pen from paper, sometimes for hours.
The drawing would conclude only when the pen had run out of ink. Time, duration and artistic process were elements being explored by many artists of the period, but mortality reverberates here: When the pen was "dead," the drawing was born.
Catholicism with a small C is evident in the multiplicity of mediums Conner has used to circle around the unified central core of his work, which is always oriented toward ideas of spiritual renewal. The catalog notes that an overview of Conner's output looks more like a group show than a survey of one artist--and it's true. But each of his shifts in medium, including the exquisite and intricate inkblot drawings that have occupied him since the 1990s, seems designed to shed a constricting body of established conformity in order to keep a constant inner life alert and moving. Think of the proverbial snake shedding its skin.
Or think of "Breakaway." For me, another of the show's discoveries is the rapturous "Breakaway"--five minutes of cinematic perfection from 1966, but so fresh, stylish and disarming that the film could have been made last week. The sacred is of course unthinkable without the profane, and plenty of that will be found in Conner's art.
"Breakaway" is breathtakingly simple. Toni Basil, then 18 or 19 and a choreographer on the rock 'n' roll TV show "Shindig," is shown dancing alone to the title song, which she also sings. A simple lyric of escape from emotional and imaginative stasis is made delirious and dynamic through tour de force editing. Conner transforms Basil into the flickering shade of an ecstatic dream. Midway through it's as if she turns herself--and us--inside out, before eventually coming back into corporeal focus. Wow!
Something needs to be remembered here: The work celebrated in this compelling show is unabashed hippie art, a designation that in some universes--not mine--would be used as a whisk with which to flick it away. Conner arrived in San Francisco and matured during a period that saw the Beat Generation flame into the Summer of Love.
Some of what's on view at MOCA isn't to my taste--especially the wood-engraving collages, whose Victorian preciousness always feels suffocating, despite the subversive efforts of their disjointed narratives. But the power of Conner's art cannot be denied, no matter how much today's conservative forces malign the era that produced it. The MOCA survey, which is easily the most absorbing exhibition the museum has mounted this year, is proof enough of that.
* Museum of Contemporary Art, 250 S. Grand Ave., (213) 626-6222, through Jan. 14. Closed Mondays.
* Kohn Turner Gallery, 454 N. Robertson Blvd., (310) 854-5400, through Oct. 28. Closed Sundays and Mondays.