Los Angeles

Bruce Conner

Michael Kohn Gallery

This miniretrospective of Bruce Conner’s assemblages, paintings, drawings, and “engraving collages” traces a career that began brilliantly but has subsequently trailed off on a foot-dragging note. Throughout the ’60s, Conner turned the scattered remains of broken found objects into some of the most compelling assemblages since Joseph Cornell. In the process Conner exploded Cornell’s modest vignettes, producing a furious, dismembered theater of mummified despair. Wax, doll parts, silk stockings, lace, rubber hose, and assorted detritus were juxtaposed in sinister sexually charged tableaux.

Conner has always responded to the world, in his words, by “gluing [it] . . . down and . . . putting my name on it.” But the fame he achieved pushed him to repeatedly change direction and medium to avoid assembly-line effects. Conner never aimed to confuse people, he just didn’t want to be pinned down, to crank out what an audience expected. A key artist of the Beat Generation, Conner made a number of films, including A Movie, 1958, Report, 1963–67, and Marilyn Times Five, 1969–73, that have exerted a remarkable influence on every aspect of American art. For Conner, chaos and chance are serious givens. Knowing that both “world” and “glue” have their weaknesses, Conner assumed his works would, like anything fragile and thrown-together, eventually disintegrate, and rather than resist the inevitable, he welcomed it.

As if in a perverse attempt to counter viewer expectations, Conner stopped making sculptural assemblages and films and began producing tame, well-mannered paintings and engraving collages. Suddenly, from the mind that brought you so much strange stuff came a steady stream of ordinary work. The unconscious appears in these pieces as a fistful of clichés; these works are the petrified twins of Max Ernst’s more urgent efforts, for they share the same modest size, exacting eye for balance, now-standard surreal juxtapositions, and merry prankster spirit. In Deus Ex Machina 9.24.87, a giant finger descends to press a start and stop button on the back of a toy Christ figure. The messages are amusing, if simplistic: the Christ machine is ready to serve with a push of a button. Tampering with the portrait, Conner has overlaid the figure’s face with machine parts, vegetables, and a mandala. In other works, Conner’s signature imagery—snakes, tubing, fish, butterflies, bird heads, in place of human heads, and countless isolated eyeballs—abounds.

Conner’s older assemblages have a lot of staying power. His brown anarchistic world of decomposition and garbage pile-ups is certainly one source for the resurgence of like-minded sculptural work going on today. Conner’s work helped put California on the cultural map 30 years ago and without the legacy of his revolutionary sensibility, the recent wave of artists working with found objects would hardly be conceivable.

Benjamin Weissman