“I am an artist, an anti-artist, no shrinking ego, modest, a feminist, a profound misogynist, a romantic, a realist, a surrealist, a funk artist, conceptual artist, minimalist, postmodernist, beatnik, hippie, punk, subtle, confrontational, believable, paranoiac, courteous, difficult, forthright, impossible to work with, accessible, obscure, precise, calm, contrary, elusive, spiritual, profane, a Renaissance man of contemporary art, and one the most important artists in the world. My work is described as beautiful, horrible, hogwash, genius, maundering, precise, quaint, avant-garde, historical, hackneyed, masterful, trivial, intense, mystical, virtuosic, bewildering, absorbing, concise, absurd, amusing, innovative, nostalgic, contemporary, iconoclastic, sophisticated, trash, masterpieces, etc. It’s all true.”
It’s All True at the SFMOMA is a collection of Bruce Conner’s work over fifty years as a Bay Area artist. It’s an almost overwhelming exhibit: a combination of experimental film, photographs, collages, paintings, etc. My vivid recollection of this exhibit is due not only to Conner’s ability to stretch far across many genres and medias, but also how well he carried it out.
His first film, A MOVIE, is a twelve-minute edit of old newsreels. The non-narrative film is similar to others in the collection: incorporating a washed-out, hazy black and white style and also having no story, rather a collection of images or one long shot. CROSSROADS, made in 1976, is an extremely slow-motion replay of an underwater nuclear test at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific. The intense slow-mo gives the audience room to capture every detail as the mushroom cloud descends towards the camera, expressing a deliberate destruction. Conner, who is clearly a fan of replaying and rewinding clips, includes this in BREAKAWAY, my favorite in the exhibit. The five-minute movie is a black and white rendition of Toni Basil (known for “Oh Mickey, you’re so fine”) dancing to her song, “Breakaway.” The entire film is made up of very quick shots of Basil, rapidly changing from close-up to far away, all moving quickly so she looks feathered and a flurry of white against the black background. When the song is done the clip and track rewind, becoming an eerie, indistinguishable gurgle.
Besides the films, Conner showcased his paintings and assemblages, which often include different textures created with netting or fabric layered on photo collages. These pieces as well as his ink drawings have a distinct color scheme: monochrome, dusty brown, or beige. The exhibit has a wall dedicated to punk rock show photos, appropriately gritty and faded, and in the next room the “angels,” gelatin silver prints of human silhouettes with hands outstretched towards us. These collections of photographs, as well as his avant-garde films, relay a signature style of white figures against a black background.
With many artists these days, I feel there is an underlying fear of “stretching oneself out too thin” in art. At SOTA, with separate departments, the idea is furthered that we should hone one art. However, if anything, Conner’s art disproves this in a way. His work is a full, vivid, synchronized range of art that surpasses the limitation of genres, blurring the lines and filling the gaps between them.
Ren Weber, class of 2018