Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The 21st Century BC

The 21st Century BC is remembered, if at all, for the Nanna Ziggurat in Ur, Seahenge, the ancient Egyptian Middle Kingdom, and various advances in the Sumerian Renaissance.

This post is about none of that.

The 21st Century I’m talking about is the one we’re living in now. And “BC” is Bruce Conner, as in Bruce Conner the artist – the great artist – who died this past July 7th. Were he alive, Bruce would today celebrate a birthday (born November 18, 1933, in McPherson, Kansas).

“The 21st Century BC” I write about is a dream of an art exhibition. Specifically, it’s an exhibition of some of the work Conner made or presented this century, during what turned out to be the last approximately eight years of his life. This would be an exhibition worthy of any age.

I “curate” this show here today because, as one who was lucky enough to be a close friend of Conner during this period, I may be one of the few in a position to know what Conner was up to in the several years before his death. Conner’s work during these years was somewhat obscure, given that he largely, and purposefully, kept his name off the things he made.

Conner announced his “retirement” in 1999 following his 65th birthday (and just as the magnificent traveling show “2000 BC: The Bruce Conner Story Part II” began). He then embarked on a grand conceptual adventure. Specifically, Conner insisted that large numbers of new drawings, despite bearing remarkable similarities to his own work, had not been made by him, but by others who he had trained and hired. Conner had galleries and even museums present the work of these cohorts under those individual’s names, which included Emily Feather, Anonymous, Anonymouse, and Justin Case. In this way, Conner stayed “retired” yet also presented art.

The attributing of work to others or to no one also allowed Conner to continue a life-long many-faceted experiment with artistic identity and anonymity. Conner, for example, periodically refused to sign art, and before he “really” died in July 2008 had twice previously – once before he was 30 – arranged for his own death to be publicized.

In addition to the work he attributed to others, Conner in his “retirement” also completed three experimental films, a large collage-assemblage, and a number of smaller collages. He also, as he put it, “recycled” some of his earlier work into new forms, including amazing large-scale woven tapestries. Conner’s “retirement” was in fact a period of incredible creativity. Given the vagaries and costs of putting together art exhibitions, especially one that, as here, would show film along with other media, it is not likely that a museum will ever mount “The 21st Century BC.” In the meantime, let us imagine together:

The exhibition begins in a room with pale-grey walls and wood floors. Hung along all the walls are about fifteen black-and-white inkblot drawings. The inkblot drawings are very dense, made by splattering ink on paper, folding it to form a symmetrical pattern and then cutting the paper into the shape of a medium-sized leaf, sometimes trending towards an idealized, unflickering flame. Sometimes these leaves or leaf-flames are mounted singly, but mostly multiple examples are collaged onto Asian scrolls, then framed. The drawings are credited to “Anonymous.”

Conner explained, “Anonymous was listening to the radio on 9/11 when the two planes collided with the World Trade Center. Anonymous created a scroll inkblot drawing with two leaves falling. There was another work later that day with three leaves. Then four leaves. More scrolls with more leaves were created in the weeks of crisis that followed. Falling leaves and leaving.” (“Interview: Bruce Conner - Jack Rasmussen,” in After Bruce Conner: Anonymous, Anonymouse, and Emily Feather (Washington, DC: American University Museum, 2005), page 6.) These inkblot drawings evoke not only falling leaves, but spirit flames. They thus suggest both transience and death, and the radiance of light and even hope. A room of these drawings can both sadden and inspire, frighten and bring peace. They are a great and relatively unknown artistic response to the shock and emotion of 9/11.

The next room has tall walls and a floor of dark rough-hewn stone, as at The Cloisters in upper Manhattan. The general lighting is dim. Huge candles flicker in the corners. In the center of the room, church pews face the walls, providing a place for the museum-goer to sit. Hung on the walls, and spot-lit, are the five massive (approximately nine by ten feet each) woven Jacquard black-and-white tapestries Conner had made in 2003 and 2004 from engraving collage images he’d made years earlier. These particular images take standard religious imagery – illustrations of standard biblical scenes, for example, and add wild, serious, funny, mysterious, and surreal twists. The titles (click to see) are DOUBLE ANGEL, CHRIST CASTING OUT THE LEGION OF DEVILS, MARY ANOINTING JESUS WITH THE PRECIOUS OIL OF SPIKENARD, AT THE HEAD OF THE STAIRS, and BLINDMAN’S BLUFF.

These tapestries were made via sophisticated computer programs, super-engineered machines, and the know-how of Oakland’s Magnolia Editions. But Conner’s handiwork is evident in the huge images’ sharp details. Conner first had his five engraving collage images scanned into a computer. He then used Adobe Photoshop to painstakingly magnify and examine every one of the thousands of lines in each collage image. Conner also carefully re-drew or adjusted almost every one of those lines to eliminate or greatly minimize the blurring that would otherwise come about when the images were massively (almost 15 times original size) enlarged. Each image took hours of work over a period of weeks before it would successfully translate into a huge tapestry. These works, then, are a testament to Conner’s vision, focus, and ability to sustain attention.

From this quasi-medieval setting we next walk into a smaller room that showcases some of the prints Conner and cohorts made in his last several years. Perhaps the most striking of these is the print Conner made in 2003 of his iconic BOMBHEAD collage, in which he altered a photo of himself wearing a military style coat and a tie is altered by adding, in place of his head and neck, a photo of a mushrooming H-bomb explosion. The actual collage, made years earlier, is relatively small. The digital print Conner made, also called BOMBHEAD, is much larger and sharper, and shockingly life-like. It's both a terrific send up of militaristic madness and a wry celebration of the wonder of consciousness blown away.

Also in this room are two prints by Diogenes Lucero, which transform Conner’s amazing life-size ANGEL series of photograms. One of these prints, titled REFLECTION, is a white-on-black symmetrical image made by doubling a photogram of Conner sitting with his arms folded around his bent, pulled back legs. The other print, titled NIGHT LIGHT, shows a luminescent orb balanced on the backs of two opposing human figures (symmetry again) that strike a pose somewhat similar to Rodin’s “The Thinker.”

The room would also have a series of six prints of oval engraving collage images that the Arion Press printed in 2003, for a book of prose poems (The Ballad of Lemon and Crow) by Glenn Todd. The poems were written in response to the collage images, which are attributed to Conner and “anonymous artists.” The prints are striking, and one of them – which I call THE HOUSE OF THE RISING MOON (second one down from the top at the hyperlink) – is particularly beautiful, mysterious, and gothic.

The final work in the room is a framed example of the poster “One Hundred Frames From BREAKAWAY,” made in 2004 by Conner and the folks at the great “little” magazine ESOPUS. The poster’s title is apt, as it reproduces a sequence of individual frames from Conner’s 1966 film in which a heaven-on-earth (and earth-in-heaven) Toni Basil dances to the song (sung by Basil) that gives the movie its title. The poster nicely suggests the film’s kinetic and spiritual energy.

Next up: show time! As in let’s see a movie. One of the films Conner completed during his final years is HIS EYE IS ON THE SPARROW (2006). It’s a short (four minute) collage film, starting with about 30 seconds of color footage Conner shot years ago of two members of the gospel group The Soul Stirrers talking about the depression years. The movie then segues into a classic Conner series of found footage black-and-white clips, generally reflecting the African-American experience and times, synced to the Soul Stirrers’ 1946 recording of R.H. Harris singing the classic spiritual “His Eye Is On The Sparrow.” It is a sincere, direct, and beautiful film. This movie, in this dream-of-an-exhibition, is shown in a room with two or three rows of padded wooden church pews set up for the viewers to sit in while watching the film.

Next is a medium sized room filled with the amazing detailed ink-blot drawings done by Conner’s 21st Century cohorts, including Emily Feather and Anonymouse. Conner’s inkblot drawings – rows of impeccably executed small drawings– are widely recognized for their wondrous mystery (see an example here). Conner’s cohorts are equally skilled. Emily Feather, as Conner explained, generally uses blue ink and often seems to make inkblot images similar to patterns of frost on windows. Anonymouse uses black ink, as did Conner, and similarly either fills a sheet of paper with dense arrays of images or more widely spaces the inkblot images on a sheet, with the evocative and meditative possibilities limited only by one’s imagination and how often one stops to really take them in.

The next room – we’re getting close to the end now – shows another movie, Conner’s last. EASTER MORNING (2008) is a ten minute color film shot entirely by Conner back in the mid-1960s (but never officially released at that time). In this century, he re-edited the footage slightly, had it step-printed (each frame re-printed multiple times, thus slowing down the succession of images), and then set the resulting film to a recording of Terry Riley’s famous “In C,” performed by the Shanghai Film Orchestra using traditional Chinese instruments. The film features images of the natural world, an interior of a home, and ultimately, a resurrection of a sort, embodied by a woman in all her glory. The movie is a color-saturated, stunning, beautiful optical poem. It should be seen in a room with comfortable chairs and room to stand, so that viewers can relax or move around while they journey out (and/or in) with Conner’s transportive film.

After the film, there’s a room that serves as a coda for the exhibition. Its walls are bare, save for a three-dimensional collage-assemblage titled, KING: THE FINAL VERSION, completed by Conner in 2008. Making assemblages for Conner is unusual. After forswearing them in 1964, after his early nylon stocking and jewelry works had brought him widespread fame, Conner made only about a half-dozen. Compared to most of his early (late 1950s) assemblages, which were packed with materials and tended to be dark, KING is spare and light. A mostly white headboard from a baby’s crib, with three small pastel-colored decorative balls inset across its top, serves as the background. On it, Conner attached or placed various items, including a small Jesus crucifixion figure, used church fans of the kind most often found in African-American or gospel churches, a piece of old linoleum, an image of M.L. King, chiffon or tulle, lace, round balls, string, a small wooden cross, and a short piece of metal chain. The work does not suggest a straight-line narrative, but rather gives rise to associations, including the struggle of spirituality or of those who in our world seek to advance it.

This room – bare except for KING – would also have a soundtrack, one programmed by Conner, albeit not specifically for this purpose. Three weeks and a day before his death, Conner mixed a 30 minute CD of tunes, presenting it as a gift to a friend. The compilation includes music by Geoff Muldaur, The Staples Singers, and The Soul Stirrers, plus two tracks of nature sounds. The CD selections, on one level, showcase Conner’s extraordinary collage instincts, as the selections are brilliantly sequenced. The CD’s songs also show – and this was very moving at the time, and remains so today – that Conner was fully aware that his time was short. The first tune is Muldaur’s version of the gospel classic, “This World Is Not My Home.” Also included are “Beautiful Isle of Somewhere,” and “Just A Little While To Stay Here” (both sung by Muldaur), The Soul Stirrer’s great “By and By,” and three classics by The Staple Singers (including the soulful, irresistible “Amen”). The CD ends with a one-minute track of the sounds of crickets, frogs, and flowing water, followed by an even shorter track of rolling thunder and rain, rolling thunder and rain, rolling thunder and rain.

* * * * *

End Note: EASTER MORNING and eleven other Bruce Conner films screen tonight (November 18, 2008) at Cornell Cinema in Ithaca, New York. That same film and others by Conner will be shown December 9, 2008, at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, and then in February, 2009, in Los Angeles.

Further End Note: “The 21st Century BC” dream-of-an-exhibition described above presents only a selection of the work Bruce Conner made this century. A complete or more extensive show would include, among other things, LUKE (2006), a 22 minute re-working of color footage Conner shot during the filming of Cool Hand Luke, set to a great score by Patrick Gleeson, and EVE-RAY-FOREVER (2006), a silent black-and-white three screen DVD projection for which Conner re-worked footage from his classic film COSMIC RAY. It would also include engraving collages, a series of framed desk-top (or dresser-top) sized inkblot drawings, a conceptual piece in which Conner arranged for one of his largest paintings to be hung outdoors, exposed to the elements, and the expanded series of black-and-white punk rock photos (a total of 53) that Conner had printed of shots he took, circa 1978, at San Francisco’s Mabuhay Gardens.

Yet Another End Note: Any complete “21st Century BC” would also include the work of other artists that Conner championed in his final years. This would include the great short film Uso Justo, by Coleman Miller (Conner loved that movie, and had copies sent to many of his friends), the musical experiments of The Poontang Wranglers (Conner sometimes played harmonica with the group), Terry Riley, and Joan Jeanrenaud, the drawings of Dean Smith, and the drawings and collages of Jean Conner, his wife of more than 50 years.

Final End Note: The image at the head of this post is HANDPRINT (1965), made by Conner with his blood and a piece of typing paper, done while he was applying blood (drawn by a doctor-friend) to a print of his film REPORT (about the assassination of JFK). In 2001, Conner attended a faux horror party, “The Return of HANDPRINT,” when the work came back to San Francisco after having traveled to four museums as part of the 2000 BC exhibition. An image of the work was featured in the 2000 BC: The Bruce Conner Story Part II catalog. In September 2008, the Brooklyn Rail featured HANDPRINT on its cover and as an illustration to an article remembering Conner. However, the image’s color in both the catalog and the Rail’s reproduction wasn't quite right. The brown tint of the image above, in this post, is closer to how the dried blood actually looks today. (All images on this post are copyright 2008 by The Conner Family Trust, and used by permission.)

The image below is of a limited edition print Conner made in 1970. It’s timeless, and today, on his birthday, I feel Bruce deserves it, a thousand times over!


John Olson said...

A great, loving tribute. Thank you for the imaginary tour. It helps me realize how brilliant Conner was at blurring the line between art & life, transcendent vision with quotidian semolina. The grain of the everyday. He & Duchamp appeared to be on the same wavelength. Your gallery of the imagination is inspiring.

John Olson

Vance Maverick said...

Thanks for your comment to my post on DeFeo's Rose -- I missed it when you posted it ten days ago. And thanks for this provocative piece on Conner; I know a bit more than just The White Rose, but not as much as I'd like....

Steven Fama said...

Thanks Vance. As I alluded to in one of the end notes to the post, BC's movies are being screened have been or will be screened in a number of cities around the country. It's a labor intensive and expensive thing to get the movies "out there." Kudos should be given to Conner's wife/widow (Jean), and to Michelle Silva (the film caretaker employed by the Conner family trust, who was trained by Bruce before his death), for undertaking the work and effort. It ain't easy, and it definitely costs money, lots of it.

Maybe you can make the Decembe screening in Berkeley, or the one in LA in February ????

Vance Maverick said...

Hmm, I see there's something Dec. 9 at the PFA in Berkeley -- is that what you're thinking of?

Steven Fama said...

Yep, 12/9 at PFA: a pretty good program, including apparently EASTER MORNING.

Carl H said...

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Looking forward to more of your postings. Thanks for sharing great story.

Florida Web Design said...

Very inspiring. Ill have to keep an eye out for this if it makes its way to the east coast. I would appreciate a contact heads up if you know of it showing east coast. Keep up the inspiring work.