Bruce Conner: The Gnostic Strain (12/92)

Bruce Conner, the sculptor, filmmaker, photographer, graphic artist, etc., has been making engraving collages off and on for more than 30 years, but lately their intensity has increased. There’s less of the easy humor of juxtaposition: an eagle’s head on Jesus’ body. There’s more of a hovering threat delivered by whole and unified fields.

These are “paper collages made up of images from steel and wood engravings” (Conner), images from around the turn of the century. The stylistic link to Max Ernst’s collages is as self-conscious as it ever was (Conner once thought of mounting a show of his own pieces as the work of an artist contemporary with Ernst, or even as the work of a precursor), but that link is far less controlling than it used to be. These days Ernst and Conner share little more than a look. Ernst’s collages, crowded with furniture and decorations, are nearly all set indoors. They’re social critiques of the suffocating manners of the 19th-century European bourgeoisie. Conner’s collages are mostly set in open spaces, even in the wilds, on jagged mountains. At their strongest they are pristine and unbroken apprehensions of a dislocation that has little if anything to do with human agency. They are dramatizations of an uncanny force—or the force of the uncanny—that preexisted and will outlast any social construction. Often there are pyramidal shapes, or open eyes embedded in the landscape, eyes fixing whoever might be casually glancing at the picture—whoever has yet to notice that he or she is being watched in turn. Eyes that see but don’t care.In the 1990 FEAR OF LIBERTY, geysers erupt on a plain. One of them is enormous, like the confirmation of some Biblical curse; still, the rendering of natural movement in the section of old engraving that Conner has scavenged is so precise the scene seems almost from a photograph. Your first impression is of event, of the real. That impression is then sent to war against the fantastic. Beneath the huge geyser there is only fairy tale and panic.

At the foot of the geysers is a swamp, and from the muck emerges the raised arm of the Statue of Liberty, torch aflame, with a giant butterfly’s wing fluttering from its back like a flag. It’s the Statue of Liberty as the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the confirmation of a curse now from some other bible. Dwarfed by the geyser, the butterfly arm itself dwarfs the figures below it; on the ground everything is fright. Well-dressed tourists flee, but just as there are no barriers on the open plain there is no haven to which you can escape. A man on horseback, a person fallen into the mud: RUN! RUN! The eye in the geyser isn’t looking down; it doesn’t have to. The eye saw this scene before it happened. It saw you before you saw it.

Communion of bum magicians
congress of failures from Kansas & Missouri
working with the wrong equations
Sorcerer’s Apprentices who lost control
of the simplest broomstick in the world:

—Allen Ginsberg, “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” 1966

Earlier this fall I asked Bruce Conner about the gnostic, even Masonic symbolism that seemed to be at work in his collages, and about Rebecca Solnit’s comment, in her book Secret Exhibition: Six California Artists of the Cold War Era—a study of the late Wallace Berman, Jess, the late Jay DeFeo, George Herms, Wally Hedrick, and Conner—that when Conner graduated from the University of Nebraska, in 1956, and moved on to the Brooklyn Museum Art School, “he met people involved with esoteric traditions.” In two long conversations Conner answered the question in many different ways.

First he told a story about the persistence of the hidden and the impulse of the hidden to reveal itself. Conner and his wife, Jean Conner, have lived in San Francisco since 1965; they first arrived there in 1957. In 1961 they were about to leave for Mexico out of fear of nuclear holocaust. They’d sold almost all of their possessions. While Conner was packing up what was left, he looked out his window onto Oak Street, a commuter artery, and noticed how the words painted on the pavement outside—


—had changed. The firehouse was long closed, the warning had been allowed to fade, and the first word now read


So Conner conceived a parting gesture. He cut out stencils, went down to the street, and in white painted


on the asphalt. It took longer to get away than he’d planned, though, and even before the Conners could leave someone had called the police, who had called a street crew, which had painted out the offending word—but too carefully. The crew painted the word over in black, letter by letter; not the original SLOW but Conner’s LOVE, which thus remained as a negative image. Not only that: the city was forced by its own means to keep the image intact. The heavy traffic on Oak Street continually eroded the black cover layer, bringing up Conner’s white LOVE; again and again workers were called back to apply the black paint. When the Conners finally returned to San Francisco the image was still waiting for them.

The occult, in other words, was part of everyday life; as for “esoteric traditions,” Conner said, “I knew about all that from Wichita.” Conner grew up there from the mid ’30s on, and then attended Wichita State University; as a boy he was involved with the local magicians’ society, and learned techniques of illusion. More to the point, his grandfather was a thirty-third-degree Mason, privy to anagogic ceremonies and cryptic handshakes. A sense of great and ancient secrets was part of family life; as we talked, Conner brought out his grandfather’s copy of the classic Manly P. Hall compendium The Secret Teachings of All Ages—An Encyclopedic Outline of Masonic, Hermetic, Qabbalistic, and Rosicrucian Symbolical Philosophy: Being an Interpretation of the Secret Teachings Concealed within the Rituals, Allegories and Mysteries of All Ages. All through the book are crude illustrations of mythological and fantastic figures—illustrations that, as revisioned with infinite care and patience by a boy grown up, changed into Conner’s engraving collages as surely as did any by Max Ernst. Conner’s pieces can cast spells, the pictures in the big mystical book merely pretend to, but you can imagine that this is where the primeval urge to cast a spell became Conner’s own.

There was as well the conviction that spells had already been cast. When Conner was growing up in Wichita, he says, it seemed to him apparent that “in the adult world, and in school, words were weapons. I learned to distrust words. I placed my bet on vision.” There is a signal memory from early childhood: Conner’s father is out in the front yard. A neighbor comes by. Conner tells the story as if it unfolded the hour before, the dialogue seamless: “Hi, Joe.” “Hi, Nick.” “How’re you doing.” “I’m doing fine.” “Great day, isn’t it.” “Sure is.” “Think we might get some rain?” “Could be.” “How’s the wife?” “Real good.” “Well, gotta go now.” “Well, see you.” “See you.”

“I was amazed,” Conner says, grinning. “I was suspicious. I thought, kids don’t talk like this! They’ve got to be hiding things from us! Conversations like this have got to be a code.”

Turn Right Next Corner
The Biggest Little Town in Kansas
—Allen Ginsberg, “Wichita Vortex Sutra”

When Conner was born, in McPherson, Kansas, in 1933, the world might have thought it knew the likes of Kansas best through the persona of Midwestern booster George F. Babbitt, antihero of Sinclair Lewis’ 1922 satirical novel. But less than 60 years had passed since the last Indian raids—or since the heyday of Dodge City, with Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp, Luke Short, and Doc Holliday cool beneath Boot Hill. In 1933 there were still people who remembered the days of “Bleeding Kansas,” when the territory was torn apart by pro- and antislavery guerrillas from the would-be prophet John Brown, who killed five in the Pottawatomie Creek Massacre in 1856, to the fiend William Quantrill, whose attack on Lawrence in 1863 left the town burning and 180 men dead in the streets. If Kansas historian Kenneth S. Davis is correct when he writes that “the most interesting and significant fact” about this legacy of slaughter is that it “had so little penetrative or shaping impact upon the essential, the permanent Kansas mind or character,” he can be correct only on the surface. One perhaps thinks less of Babbitt than of all that had to be repressed for him to come to life, or of the shapes an “essential, permanent” Kansas culture forced—or sparked—some inner lives to take. Reading Davis, I thought of Babbitt, but also for the first time in twenty years of The Adventures of Phoebe Zeit-geist—a ’60s comic serial by Michael O’Donoghue and Frank Springer—and of the cabal of Plains States satanists loose in its panels:

Michael O’Donoghue and Frank Springer, The Adventures of Phoebe Zeit-geist, 1968, comic-strip panel.

… with, beneath an ordinary-looking bank, their “dread Temple of Necrophilia,” entered only by means of awful incantations and strange hand gestures, where “torchlit grottos” hold “preserved corpses… caught at the peak of erotic frenzy,” one of them with an “electric motor designed to simulate the throes of ecstasy installed in her pelvis. Known as ‘Our Lady of Perpetual Orgasm,’ she has not ceased gyrating since she was turned on in 1911…” Or, as Conner put it in college, when in 1955 he recast a harmless Les Baxter pop hit called “Wake the Town and Tell the People” into an incantation of his own, a song he still sings gleefully:

Burn the town and kill the people
Disembowel Parson Brown
Hang the mayor from the steeple
Tear the jailhouse down
Rape the nuns at old St. Mary’s
Crucify the PTA
We’ll get stinking drunk at Harry’s
And kill ourselves on Christmas day

A morbid fantasy, sophomoric humor—and for anyone attuned to what was hidden, real enough. When Conner began working in San Francisco in the late ’50s, humor and morbidity found a field in assemblage, in the fluid sculptures he made out of found objects (or “lost objects”), anything from junk picked up on the street to nylon stockings a friend might be ready to throw out. Humor, morbidity—the mix was never stable.The pieces weren’t meant to be stable. Conner saw them not as finished objects but as process, as events that could be added to, altered, that were in some sense alive, and often they looked it, even though they also often looked like dead animals. When his assemblages began to be bought and, so to speak, killed—hidden away in the bowels of museums or archives—Conner lost heart for them. He took his photos of the works—the only proof he had, in some cases, that they even existed—tore the photos into pieces, and returned the pieces to the streets where the works had come from in the first place. One of the assemblages that went missing was the 1960 BLACK DAHLIA When in 1961 Conner sent it on consignment to Walter Hopps at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles, he announced its imminent arrival with a postcard addressed to “MR. NecROPHIL.” “I remembered the winter of ’47,” Hopps says today, “when the whole Elizabeth Short thing hit the papers.” He bought the piece, and it has not been seen in public for over 30 years.

Elizabeth Short, “The Black Dahlia,” was a movie hopeful who had turned to prostitution. Her body was found in an L.A. vacant lot, burned and slashed and mutilated, cut in two at the waist, eviscerated and drained of blood. The city put 250 cops on the case, which was never solved. Conner’s version is a dream of the event, as if just before the fact—all motive and portent, no act.

The guts of the assemblage are crammed inside a stocking. The scene that is made seems set underwater, as if this were not only the Black Dahlia but a corpse in Raymond Chandler’s Lady in the Lake. The elongated shape of the piece can give it a phallic cast; if you see it that way, what otherwise might look like seaweed looks like scrofula or syphilis. The whole bottom two-thirds of the thing is dank, visually in motion, decomposing, with every recognizable part-object a surprise: bits of a comic strip, the edge of a razor blade, an old, Oriental-looking death’s head tattoo. At the top, with black and silver sequins along one side and a nail through her back, is the woman. Her buttocks are pocked by pin marks; there is a strip of black cloth around her waist, as if to mark the spot where her body will be severed. But such language gets nowhere with the aura the work gives off.

What is most shocking about BLACK DAHLIA is not its horror, which is clear and irreducible, but its stillness, its peacefulness. The woman—a magazine picture—is waiting. The expression on her face, turned to one side, is unreadable: patient, accepting, doped, perhaps just… thoughtful. She seems close enough to touch and a million miles away. There are secrets here; it isn’t clear that they are hers, or even the artist’s, the criminal’s, the killer’s. BLACK DAHLIA hangs from its fraying cord; what is heaviest is its quality of suspension, of morals or limits.

Conner’s 1992 engraving collage PICTURE WINDOW has no Masonic eye winking in its shadows, waiting for you to find it. Rather, along with the pyramids outlined at its base, it has one big eye, right at its heart: the recessed square that is also a door.

“We’re on the surface of a field of consciousness that pops up and looks at itself,” Conner says. “From a human point of view, that consciousness is being entertained… When I do these collages, and those little eyes appear, they’re like this field, this undifferentiated field that has imposed itself on us. It pops up and looks around. You don’t know what it’s thinking—you don’t know,” Conner laughs, “what other people are thinking!”

“So the eyes for me represent,” Conner said finally, “the eyes that are traveling through the environment, looking at it, that happen to just settle down—it’s almost as if they were my eyes, sometimes.”

The modesty, or self-effacement, of that last line is remarkable, but so is the self-effacement of PICTURE WINDOW, or the artist’s disappearance into it. Unlike Conner’s other collages, PICTURE WINDOW has no plainly defined objects in it; rather than a seamless field, it is scored with borders, making shapes that hold discrete wisps of imagery not precisely congruent with those around them. It’s a picture of drift, a collage of air, though sometimes what first are clouds settle in as earth and trees, then lift off again.

You might think of Seurat, Monet—a severe yet ethereal Impressionism. But the work is also taking place at the edges of a Turner, and in the distances in Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Mists—without the figure in that painting, his mountaintop contemplation. His presence is somehow absorbed but not dissolved by the natural features in PICTURE WINDOW, so that those features as such now contain his consciousness, or intent, or will—it’s impossible to say.

The longer you look at PICTURE WINDOW, the more you have the feeling you are being seen. This is a power piece: by the act of watching you set its component parts in motion, but the recessed door at its center doesn’t move. The work is a magic lamp, spectral and absorbing; I mean that it can make the viewer feel like a specter, and that it can absorb the viewer. Scribbled in my notes: “This piece is evil.”

What I remember in my chest, though, is a swirling sensation, a flood of pleasure, the smile of oblivion. After a time, the aura fades, of course; you might feel that what you see is only a veneer, a mask, almost literally a smoke screen over whatever it is that’s truly there. And part of what is there is no more than the momentary perfection of a chosen medium, even if the form remains open, unsatisfied, and cruel, ready for the next act. As in three more lines from Ginsberg’s Kansas poem: “I here declare the end of the War!/Ancient day’s Illusion!—/and pronounce words beginning my own millennium.”

For their assistance and cooperation, thanks go to Peter Kirkeby, Paula Kirkeby of the Smith Andersen Gallery in Palo Alto, Tom Luddy, Edith Kramer and Nancy Goldman of the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, the staff of Canyon Cinema in San Francisco, Mark Stickman of Comic Relief in Berkeley, Tim Savinar, Walter Hopps and Alberta Mayo of the Menil Collection in Houston, Jean Conner, and Bruce Conner (“Run it as a Playboy centerfold”).

Artforum, December 1992

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