Progression of Art
Drawing on the aesthetic of American artist Joseph Cornell, (who created melancholy assemblages from antique Victorian wooden boxes, trinkets, and toys), Conner imbued his own morbid assemblages with a dark style that conveyed a sense of violence and dread, mirroring the Cold War-era atmosphere in which it was produced. Art critic Kristine McKenna notes that, in many of his assemblages (including Child, as well as The Bride (1960), and Looking Glass (1964)), the use of wax and nylon stockings as binding agents "lent the pieces the quality of being ensnared in webs of death".
In this work, the grotesque, human form throws its head backwards as if howling in excruciating pain while the black wax used to create the figure gives it the appearance of a burns victim. Although references to several contemporary issues are woven into this work (including the nuclear weapons, childhood innocence, and the Vietnam war), Conner's primary message is his disgust for capital punishment, and in particular, the widely-publicized case of inmate Caryl Chessman who was incarcerated and later executed in a gas chamber, for the kidnapping and sexual molestation of a woman in Los Angeles.
Thomas H. Garver, Assistant Director of the Rose Art Museum in Waltham, Massachusetts, asserts that "Conner's assemblages sweep together a motley assortment of human detritus apparently without selection [and that] he synthesizes new objects from the flimsy and garish items which appear through one another like half-thought ideas". Here, however, the use of nylon stockings (as with other assemblages) allude to female sexuality and vulnerability, a common theme running through Conner's oeuvre. Indeed, several of his films use pre-existing soft-core pornographic footage of women seductively removing their stockings. Film critic Amy Taubin notes that in his film assemblages Conner uses "women's stockings that had been worn to death", thereby adding violence against women to the various other political themes taken up by him in his work.
Wax, nylon, cloth, metal, twine, and high chair - MoMA New York
Looking For Mushrooms
This short film by Conner marked his first attempt at creating a film out of original footage (rather than using stock footage as he had done in earlier films, like A Movie (1958)) and multiple exposures. It was also his first color film. Indeed, all of Conner's works became more vivid while living in Mexico. This was due largely to the more vibrant character of the scavenged objects he encountered there. The footage used in Looking For Mushrooms was shot by Conner during his excursions with psychologist Timothy Leary into the countryside to hunt for psychedelic mushrooms (psilocybin). The film uses rapid editing to present hypnotic, abstracted imagery of rural Mexico combined with shots of the urban centre of San Francisco. The film also introduced imagery from the natural world and religious/spiritual imagery.
Thematically, this film represents Conner's disillusionment with Cold War-era politics, and his fascination with counterculture, consciousness, and spiritual experience (particularly those afforded by psychedelic drugs). The multiple, quickly shifting images represent the sorts of visual changes that occur when under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs. In one version of this film, Conner paired these visuals with the Beatles' song "Tomorrow Never Knows" from their 1966 album Revolver (which contained lyrics by John Lennon that were inspired by Leary, Ralph Metzner, and Richard Alpert's 1964 book The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead). By pairing visuals with popular music, Conner in fact anticipated many of the common features of contemporary music video production. Garver asserts that, "This kinetic technique, most highly developed in [Conners's] movies, is very much against the idea of an aesthetic 'grand manner,' for any major compositional-visual theme is mitigated by many other elements introduced as decoys, thus preventing the work from becoming too simply composed and too easily understood".
16mm to 35mm optical blow-up - MoMA New York
While living in Mexico in the early 1960s, Conner began experimenting with meandering and patterned sketches. After returning to the United States, he developed these drawings into meditative mandalas, which featured multiple and/or concentric circles within rectangular frames, and all of which foreground an interest in symmetry and pattern. Critical Studies professor John Yau sees Conner's mandalas as studies on the "struggle between dark and light, materiality and immateriality" and symbols of "the search for completeness".
Conner experimented with intricate geometric drawings throughout his life, as in his Book Pages series (1967) which present sheets of paper almost entirely filled with continuous, wandering lines, as well as in his Rorschach-like inkblot drawings of the 1990s and 2000s. Art critic and curator Michael Smith understands Conner's mandalas and other drawings not only as visual products, but as "records of obsessive performances", during which Conner immersed himself in the process of drawing for hours on end (the shift in tone from black to grey indicate moments when his pens began to run out of ink).
Conner once stated that "Rather than being esoteric, I see the circle as a common, universal, ordering structure, one of the most fundamental in the world [...] when I was doing these drawings I'd keep seeing these organized forms. Of course, your consciousness and your mind start restructuring the world according to whatever values are already there [but the] mystery of symmetry appears to be a universal one. Perhaps this is a characteristic of our consciousness, looking at ourselves; of choosing between symmetry, balance or centering, and asymmetrical eccentricity".
Pentel felt-tip pen on paper - The Morgan Library and Museum, New York
Dennis Hopper One Man Show, Volume III, Image IV
This work comes from a series, begun by Conner in the late 1950s, that transformed fragments of nineteenth-century engraved illustrations into bizarre, hallucinatory images, and directly inspired by the works of the Surrealist Max Ernst. In this image Conner's method of re-configuring pre-existing images mirrors his approach to working in other media, such as his sculptural assemblages, which juxtaposed recycled objects, and as his films, were made by editing together original and stock footage.
The hypnagogic landscape pictured here, complete with bizarre, even physically impossible artificial structures, recalls similar scenes painted by Ernst, such as Solitary and Conjugal Trees (1940), Napoleon in the WIlderness (1941), and War of Two Roses (1955). Other works produced by Conner for this series include images of plants, animals, machine parts, and human figures.
As many scholars and critics (such as Charles Desmarais) have asserted, by insisting that this body of work only be exhibited if attributed to the artist and actor Dennis Hopper, Conner expanded the series from the purely visual into the realm of Conceptual Art. In fact, critiquing authorship was a significant conceptual interest for Conner throughout his career. He often signed his works with a fingerprint or alias, exhibited under pseudonyms (like "Anonymous," "Anonymouse," "Justin Kase" and "Emily Feather"), passed out pins that read "I am Bruce Conner" at gallery events, and mailed pins reading "I am not Bruce Conner" to other men with the same name. One sees in this strategy a clear lineage back to Marcel Duchamp's Dadaist Conceptual "statement" whereby he appropriated a Readymade (urinal), presented it in a public gallery as art and then signed it under a playful, and blatantly false, pseudonym.
Roz of Negative Trend: Suspended Animation (from Mabuhay Gardens Punk Photos)
In 1977, Conner, who had long been interested in the rebellious countercultural movements, began regularly attending punk rock shows at the San Francisco music club Mabuhay Gardens. At forty-four years old, he participated in dancing and "moshing" with the revelers. After a chance meeting with V. Vale, owner of several counterculture publications, Vale invited Conner to shoot photographs for his zine Search and Destroy, which documented the local punk community. Vale believed that "punk represented the need for freedom, both socially and artistically". A like-minded Conner saw his gritty concert photography as being akin to "combat photography", once stating, "I had always liked the idea of action photos [...] They're floating in the air, part of this suspended sphere, and they've got these beatific looks on their faces, they're in anguish".
Conner's action shots of bands like Crime, the Mutants, and the Avengers, captured the aggressive energy of the events and the intensity of the performer. For instance, in the image shown here musician Roz of Negative Trend is photographed in medium close-up. His sweat covered body and swollen veins capture the sense of human dynamism. This urgency is emphasized through the anonymous hand that enters the frame from the left, tugging at the singers already ripped shirt, as a bottle of beer, having just slipped from his hand, sprays its contents as it slips from the Roz's grip.
It was evident to all who saw him in action that Conner found in the 1970s punk scene the same sense of enthusiasm and camaraderie as he had found in the 1950s Beat community. As artist Emma Hart writes, "Conner's photographs live in the interstice between an historical record and an art image, capturing the spirit of the place and activity in space and time". Conner brought his filmmaking talents to the punk scene too, collaborating with new wave band Devo on a music video for their song "Mongoloid" (1978). As with his other film projects, Conner montaged found footage, including 1950s television advertisements and industrial film footage, into an aggressive, chaotic video that synchronized perfectly with the music.
Gelatin silver print - Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina
Conner's artworks can be grouped as countercultural statements of rebellion and resistance against the dominant late-twentieth century image culture. He had become somewhat transfixed throughout his career by the destructive power of atomic bombs. As Critical Studies professor John Yau explained, "For Conner, death and hell were not abstractions but physical states; in the late 1950s, in the aftermath of the Holocaust and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, amid the tensions of the Cold War and the nuclear arms race between the USSR and the United States, he felt as if they were all around him, that he was just a step away from being consumed by the fires of Hell (the atom bomb)".
Conner produced several works that dealt with this topic, including his film Crossroads (1976), which looped images of mushroom clouds and explosions (including footage of the U.S. nuclear bomb test on Bikini Atoll in the South Pacific in 1946) for thirty-six minutes. Many of his other prints and collages feature smoke and mushroom clouds, too, including Puff (2003), and Baker Day: July 25, 1946 (2003). Arts writer Charles Schultz asserts that Bombhead is "comical and disturbing in equal measures [...] evoking the notion that aggression is an ultimately consuming and senseless force". But by replacing the male figure's head with a mushroom cloud, Conner not only dehumanizes the figure by obscuring his identity through an allusion to violence, he also serves to posit the wider conceptual question about how images are regurgitated and transformed through modern media systems.
Cut-and-pasted printed paper on printed paper - MoMA New York