Bruce Conner - Looking for Mushrooms (1968/1996)

Bruce Conner

Art issues. Summer 1999

Bruce Conner is one of a rare breed of hipsters whose currency continues undiminished across generations of subcultures. Taking his role as the peyote-poppin' beatnik father of the sinister and melancholy West Coast strain of late-nineteen-fifties assemblage to the brink of art-world stardom, he chose instead to spurn the compromises and rewards of such conventional success.

Reinventing himself as a pioneer of nineteen-sixties experimental film, his exquisite non-linear montages of found and stock footage made him a hero to a generation of outré auteurs. Linearity found its outlet in Conner's intricately psychedelic horror vacuii drawings from the same period — maze-like doodles verging on obsessive-compulsive hypergraphism, but betraying the eye and touch of an accomplished draftsman. While his later lost Weekend spent documenting the Bay Area punk scene and his brilliant pre-MTV film for DEVO’s "Mongoloid" earned him the love of the hate generation, it is from a wealth of rediscovered material from this fertile period of consciousness-expansion that his most recent exhibition "Looking for Mushrooms" was assembled.

The heart of the show is a reconfigured version of a lesser-known early film of the same name. Originally made between 1959 and 1965, it was shot with a i6mm camera and later bumped down to Super-8 for use as part of the elaborate lightshows of The North American Ibis Alchemical Light Company at San Francisco's Avalon Ballroom. Using a five-frame-per-second projection speed unique to the Bolex S-8 projector, the rapid-fire staccato of in-camera edits and sudden splices was slowed-down to a smooth and dreamy throb. Re-edited back to 16mm in 1996 to mimic the pulse of the Super-8 version, and accompanied by a vintage sax, organ, and tape-loop improvisation by Terry Riley, the film is a masterpiece of no-budget filmmaking. Cobbled together from shaky handheld footage of landscapes and signage, rife with double exposures and "wrong" techniques, it leaves you wondering how it could possibly be as good as it seemed while you were watching it. What strikes me about this effect is how it recapitulates the typical difficulty psychedelic-users have in assimilating their peak experiences into the fabric of their daily lives. This awkward discontinuity recurs on a wider sociological level, particularly in America, and is probably a major contributing factor (along with the artist's obstinate anticommercial posture) to Conner's drastic underestimation as a force in contemporary art.

While a full-blown retrospective is long overdue (Conner turned 65 last November), commercial spaces and smaller museums have continued to bridge the gap with overviews of specific areas of his work. The drawings in "Looking For Mushrooms" fall roughly into three categories: abstract fields of seething marks, sometimes broken into concentric rings; landscapes incorporating much of the same tangled draftsmanship; and delicate and relative empty sketches for (mostly unrealized) sculptures. Each body of work has its particular appeal. The sketches for sculpture show masterful ease, restraint, and a command of delineated forms -- while possessing a comically abject anthropomorphism. As the drawings become filled with hatching and filigree, their physicality increases exponentially, and they begin to act with both a harder retinality and a more ominous psychological edge.

But it is the all-over compositions, hovering between Islamic calligraphy and the vertiginous hard-wiring of Bridget Riley, which simultaneously convey a claustrophobic sense of containment and nonobjective expansiveness. The eye is led in rhythmical, repetitive motions across the paper's surface, inducing a trance state analogous to the effect of certain Middle Eastern musical traditions. At this point, Conner's drawings echo Terry Riley's repetitive undulations on the film's soundtrack, reinforcing - through the backdoor - the similarities between the drawings and the film. Such consonances are implicit in Conner's approach to visual experience—and experience in general. Until it becomes possible to experience the scattered and disparate elements of his work in one space, much of the depth of his oeuvre will remain shrouded in mystery. In the meantime, small but potent fragments like "Looking For Mushrooms" will have to do.

Doug Harvey will have to do.