San Francisco

Bruce Conner

San Francisco Art in­stitute

The Neallie Sullivan award of $1000 to a working artist has been awarded this year to Bruce Conner, and the Institute has hung an exhibition of his collages, paintings and drawings to celebrate the event. (This prize is an annual bequest from the estate of the late San Francisco sculptress, Adeline Kent, and is not a grant for some de­fined project, nor the result of some competition, but is awarded without strings to a deserving artist; an admir­able method of bestowing prizes which deserves to be imitated by all prize committees.) Bruce Conner is one of the luminaries of what might be called the Wichita Group; this group includes not only artists in the visual arts, but poets such as Michael McClure, and the printer and publisher David Hazel­wood. They are natives of Wicnita who have moved to San Francisco where they hoped to find a more hospitable atmosphere to develop their tortured vision. Several of their number have done significant work, and have been quite influential among the young art­ists of this area. This has been particu­larly true of Conner who has husbanded a whole crop of death wish collagists whose tar and feather art, alas, has never equalled his own.

Some of these collages seem to have begun as paintings and eventually sur­rendered to the encrustations of feath­ers, artificial flowers, fur, ghastly photo­graphs, and an almost inevitable shroud of rent and run silk stockings, and pendant objects. The tattered stockings are fetish objects in themselves, but also serve to obscure and make mys­terious the already sinister objects be­neath. Fur behind stocking, with tufts coming through, is somehow very shock­ing. A few paintings escape this fate, but only if they manage to complete their grotesque image unfettered. Cru­cifixion is a painting of a torso which gives the impression of having been painted in blood which has dried into a dark brown; it is hacked off at the knees, and all other extremities have disappeared in the carnage. A less extreme painting is a greyish-white gloom piece (untitled) which seems at first to be non-objective, but on closer inspection reveals a Japanese ghost­-woman reminiscent of Lady Murasaki’s house ghouls.

Cherub, on the other hand, is a painting become collage, with a doll’s head thrusting through the canvas in a most organic way, but left stillborn to stare through stockings and candle wax. The dolls-head has since become cliche material for collagists. Other typical collages are. Primavera, and Cannibus Collage. The former a mouldering valentine of false flowers and tattered fancywork framed by a rusty reflector rim—the finishing pend­ant is a much-used sink stopper. The latter, a blackish and rusty accumula­tion of auto parts, nails, and smiling flapper, is a veritable Model T of junk collage.

Another group of collages are entirely pendant, and hang free of the wall, though in other respects they are sim­ilar to the wall hangings. (A good study of symbolic meaning implied by the pendant can be found in Freud’s essay on Poe’s Black Cat, though it seems the meaning is quite clear in these collages.) Rat Purse is one of these pendant collages; it contains sequins, and hypodermic, among other things, and has a can at the bottom to catch the funky residue.

This work is without fluency or any decorative quality, but willfully exposes a whole catalog of subconscious de­mons and dream memorabilia, thus tracing the surrealist preoccupations back to their Dada origins where the imagery is less resolved, but more brutal. There is a rumor that Conner has arrived at an impasse, and is now unproductive. If so, one hopes this prize will help him through a reflective hiatus; an apocalyptic vision must be the natural successor to this dark hell.

Knute Stiles