Los Angeles

Bruce Conner

Bruce Conner’s latest show conjured the ghosts of Edgar Allen Poe, William Blake, and Max Ernst. Spanning nearly a decade, the works (which ranged from 1987 to ’96) were divided, by methodology, into two categories: inkblot drawings and wood-engraving collages. The latter are elegant black and white cutups of fin-de-siècle engravings, which Conner scissored into surreal, absurd incarnations, full of mystical hints. One such piece, The Advance of Technology, 1996, is an altered biblical illustration. Gesturing energetically toward a shy Christ is a barefoot, robed figure whose head is covered by what looks like an upended colander, various handles, and a sitz bath. Nearby, a bearded man kneels before the savior, a flywheel mounted on his back, the number gauge for a scale visible between his shoulder blades. Other cryptic bits of ancient hardware adhere to the bearded one. The overall effect is of a sly cognitive dissonance. Splintered bits of consciousness are flying all around. Are the prophets in The Advance of Technology turning robotic? What sort of contradictory miracles might we be witnessing here? One of the many appeals of Conner’s work is his blurring—maybe even equation—of the expected and the incongruous, the angelic and the monstrous, the lavishly decorated and the gothic. Other collage imagery includes the usual pyramids, crumbling ruins, all-seeing eyes, ornate flora and fauna, insects, etc., creating a mannered clash of realities by juxtaposing various hallucinatorily detailed brocades (as in Secret Garden, 1996).

The inkblot pieces in the show subdivided themselves into two bodies of work, displayed in different rooms. The first works viewers encountered were small “drawings” in which droplets of ink were painstakingly teased into legions of Rorschach-like figures. These shifty images behave like good psychological tests should: now resembling hieroglyphics, now death’s-head moths, diminutive horseshoe crabs, fossils, or the alphabet of a race of beetle-beings from Pluto. There’s something exquisite about these massings of precisely executed smears. They’re beautiful, slightly scary, obsessive; surprisingly complex for their tiny size, and absolutely symmetrical.

The larger inkblot drawings, some of which are matted with scroll silk or framed with mirrors, are lacy, spatter-patterned columns that resemble smoky X-rays of vertebrae or the stretched skins of exotic snakes. Mysterious and haunting, the markings on these pieces seem to fluctuate, emerging and receding.

The pleasures of pattern and texture were echoed everywhere in this show: in the fine lines of the engravings, the moire patterns of the silk mats, the pinstripe background in The Question, 1996 (which also employs lines of text as visual pattern), as well as in the myriad patterns of Conner’s mutating blot-forms. A Vision (for W.B.), 1996, is a collage that luxuriates in the musicality of visual patterning. Engraved cloud forms, mists, light rays, and swirling radiances are arranged in stripes and squares. Conner’s apparent love of paradox leads him again and again to present us with visual renderings of the ineffable, arranged geometrically.

Amy Gerstler