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Rousing exhibit displays artist's rare imagination

By M.S. Mason Arts and television writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 10, 1999



MINNEAPOLIS

His color palette is somber for the most part - gray, black and white, and earth tones. But the California artist's creative ideas dazzle the imagination. There is just so much going on in "2000 BC: The Bruce Conner Story Part II" at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis that this major, traveling exhibition of the artist's work over 40 years defies any easy description.

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They include sobering, politically provocative collages that address the dangers of the cold war; visually stunning films that rely on rapid editing, predating Hollywood's recent tendencies; assemblages that helped define the California art scene of the 1960s; and explorations of the sacred in drawings and "photograms."

All of it points to a rare intelligence, perception, and creative imagination.

While many of Conner's pieces can be disturbing, they are never merely sensational. Rather, they confront hypocrisy, inhumanity, and selfishness, exposing the nature of those ways of thinking with striking juxtapositions of images.

Many of the assemblages are draped with what look like shredded nylon stockings. The objects (beads, feathers, and flowers) and "found" images (taken from a variety of magazines, newspapers, and commercial debris) seem encased, caught in a spider's web of memory.

Perhaps they are metaphors for the way the mind works. Visiting curator Peter Boswell says, "I think the assemblages were very important for their time.... [Conner] would go into the old Victorian [buildings] they were tearing down in San Francisco and collect window frames and other detritus he found on the streets and in dumpsters and secondhand stores."

During the year Conner spent in Mexico with his wife (1961), he couldn't find much in the way of debris because Mexico is not that kind of society. "They use everything - they didn't throw things away. So Bruce used colored paper and other things he bought, and the work got a lot more colorful," Mr. Boswell says. During this period, Conner incorporated religious imagery into his work - imagery he used for some time to come.

The beautiful photograms of the 1970s metaphorically explore light as symbolic of spirit. Conner took long sheets of photographic paper and placed himself between the paper and a brilliant light source. Where the light touched the paper, the paper turned black, producing in essence a photographic negative. His first "angel" shows a figure of light.

But in a later piece in the series, appropriately called "Flame Angel" (1975), the paper was exposed much longer to the light, and the only white areas (where his body actually touched the paper and blocked the light) look like flames leaping up. Powerful and exquisite, these "angels" touch us with the immediacy that "there is a spirit in man."

Though much of the work incorporates so-called chance operations, in reality a rigorous discipline forms the cornerstone of Conner's creative process. Drawings like the "Star" series or the inkblot series spring from elegant precision of technique and an eye for graceful form.

In "Stars," the artist laid down black ink with fine-point felt-tip pens, leaving points of white paper exposed until the whole resembles the night sky. One of these took a year to create.

His drawings have spanned his career. Even the most abstract of them appear organic, as if they were thumbprints or wood grain (though never literally copying these). They point toward the tracks of human experience, the evidence of things seen and unseen. His inkblot series is particularly evocative: He seems to be mocking the idea of the Rorschach test by turning tiny, painstakingly made inkblots (dozens on a single sheet of paper) into a larger abstract design.

The traveling show, the curators say, is not a retrospective. "Bruce has worked so widely across mediums he would need a number of different presentations in order to cover what he has done," says Boswell. But this engrossing exhibition does reveal the breadth and depth of Conner's art.

*'2000 BC: The Bruce Conner Story Part II' is on exhibit at the Walker Art Center through Jan. 2. It then travels to Fort Worth, Texas; San Francisco; and Los Angeles.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society