Bruce Conner

Bruce Conner Loves Sound (Part Four)

A still from “Crossroads” (1976)

Go for the films! Notice his use of Rock and Roll of all kinds. “Three Screens Ray” (2006) is a film triptych which pulses with love, death, desire, silliness and light. A live version of Ray Charles’ “What I Say” accompanies the film and echos through the exhibition by the comings and goings of slightly embarrassed museum goers. It is the most overtly sexual film in the retrospective. After watching, the music “bleeding into” the gallery is a constant, musical reminder of the big ideas in Conner’s head.

“Looking for Mushrooms” had many iterations, but the one shown here is from 1996. Again, the music is by Terry Riley. The footage is in color and was shot mostly in Mexico by Conner. One of the versions of the film included a song by the Beatles “Tomorrow Never Knows”. I think you can see the affinity between the images and music in both versions. The gallery notes mention a cameo by psychedelic guru Timothy Leary. It is a beautiful film to experience. Even with the galleries outside crowded with Sunday morning museum visitors, I shared the experience with only one other viewer.

It’s hard to believe the seven minute musical portrait of the beautiful Toni Basil “Breakaway” (1966) was made in the 60’s and not a few weeks ago at the House of Yes in Bushwick.  To accompany the movie, he plays her song Breakaway forward, completely, and then backwards, completely. The transition is a light touch after a fade out. The beat -unlessened- goes on, and the intensity of the images grows for this film portrait.

Personal energy is the subject of “Breakaway” and an equally powerful energy is the subject of “Crossroads”(1976).

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The flickering film shows the same 1946 Pacific ocean nuclear test over and over filmed from many different positions by military planes and warships. As if Conner had chosen the location himself, the test was performed with a wink over the shoulder in the Bikini Atoll. The film has music by Patrick Gleeson and Terry Riley, but it is the sound which caught my attention. The rumble of destruction sometimes begins with the image of the explosion. Sometimes the sound continues as the explosion begins again.

Again and again, Bruce says:

Behold what we have done.

Behold the power,

the cacophony,

and the fury.

The navy ships

that won the great war

bob

like driftwood

In a timid circle.

We –

great and small.

 

Behold the image on the screen

as the film rat-a-tats through the machine.

Isn’t it awful!

Isn’t it amazing!

Our nature-

best and worst.

 

This is the final post of many about this exhibition. Please go! At MoMA until October 2nd.

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Bruce Conner Loves Sound (Part III)

A  stolen frame from “Looking for Mushrooms” by Bruce Conner

Conner photographed the San Francisco punk scene of the late seventies- a micro scene really- and the resulting photographs and collages hang out in the gallery just outside of the showing of his film “Crossroads”. He went to hear the not-yet-famous Devo at the Mabuhay Gardens club at the suggestion of Toni Basil (whose energy and person is the subject of “Breakaway”). For a few years, that place became his bar, the bands and crowds his people while punk sparked and smoked. Oddly quiet is this noisy scene.  He probably saw his younger self in these young musicians. His early melting sculptures and collages are as punk as any baby-pinned cheek or torn nylons.  He never seems to slip into the punk aural aesthetic entirely, but he did make a music video of Devo’s Mongoloid (1978) during this period.

About twenty years later, using some of these pictures in collage, he eulogises the same men whose angry, destructive lives brought them to early deaths.

Always in the thick of things, Conner continued making music videos in the early 1980’s. As much a collaborator as collage maker, he made collage videos with the art-rock dream duo of Brian Eno and David Byrne. He pairs the pairs’ sound collage songs with images that flicker and dot with retro found funkiness. The videos don’t add to the music or detract from it, either. The sound is the hum of the box and the video is the embellishment on screen. Three black boxes wait the museum-goer on the first floor in front of the elevators which rise to the main exhibition hall. Give them a listen. Mongoloid is there. I liked Mea Culpa which is in the middle.

 

“Easter Morning” (1966/2008) is a meditation on love and resurrection. Placed at the end of the show, it clangs with the music of fellow bay-area legend Terry Riley. The music used is Riley’s “In C” which plays with a simple chord and leaves the when and where up to the individual musicians. The changing sameness of the strange soundtrack is emphasized by the use of traditional Chinese instruments instead of western instruments. The color film begins with flowers, crosses and spots of light and leads to a naked woman sitting demurely on the floor bathed in Van Eyck sunlight.

This is the third post of many about this exhibition. Please go! At MoMA until October 2nd.

Bruce Conner Loves Sound (Part 2)

From Angels (1986) with Edmund Shea

In one visit, it is difficult to appreciate the welter of media, styles and experiences of Bruce Conner: It’s All True. Mandalas are framed and hung on the wall in one gallery- inked in minute, cramped detail. Intentional or not, it reminds me of the test patterns and countdowns that one often sees in his films. Those images make me “hear” the beeps and sine waves of the behind-the-scenes machinations of watching T.V. and movies as a kid. Sometimes the curtain would open and you would see and hear the wizard, or at least the technician, before the show started.

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#100 MANDALA (1970)

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1950’s  era television test pattern

Conner likes working with other artists.  Angels is one cooperative effort with Edmund Shea from 1986. The room for Angels is painted black and hung on the walls are several gelatin silver prints of heavenly light piercing a black plane. There are eight almost-full-sized portraits, each cutting through the dark in its own way. According to the information sign, Bruce liked making his gallery shows “theatrical”, so these images were originally accompanied by crickets in a box, chirping. MoMA shied away from this idea by playing a close recording of crickets into the gallery space. I guess bait shops and potato slices aren’t plentiful on 53rd street.

 

The chirping warms the room, accompanying the angels not with the sounds of  heavenly hosts, but with a summer night. The angels are made familiar by this friendly, earthy chorus. Angels is now associated in my mind with the sound of chirping crickets, and they are more alive in my memory. Clever how he attaches his angels to my memory with sound.

This is the second post of many about this exhibition. Please go! At MoMA until October 2nd.

Bruce Conner Loves Sound

Gregory Briggler at the exhibition. Photo credit: ©2016 Gregory Briggler

Bruce Conner loves sound. He understands it in a way that few visual artists do. The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) is showing and sounding a retrospective of the artist whose life spanned the life of Rock and Roll. The name of the show is Bruce Conner: It’s All True. I can not recommend it enthusiastically enough.

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A frame from A Movie

The main show begins fittingly with “A Movie” (1958) which impressed me with its aesthetic directness. Well known and respected (but new to me), the found-film collage swings back and forth between images of violence, love, beauty and the mundane. All accompanied by the orchestral brass warhorse “The Pines of Rome” (1924) by Italian composer Ottorino Respighi. The music begins with a quiet flourish and ends majestically, and the images seem to surf the music, harnessing its power in a brilliant way. It’s hard to imagine how the film would work without the music to lend structure and support. Conner often uses images, music and sound that look back in time, but the effect never strikes me as nostalgic or cheaply ironic.

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He uses sound as a part of collage in Tick Tock Jelly Clock Cosmotron (1961) (above) just as surely he uses nylon hose, wax and pin-up cutouts in other sculptures and assemblages from around the same time. In the original “Tick Tock” a vacuum cone containing the sound playback and recording device is umbilicaled to the rest of the collage. Inside the cone, he had originally recorded the conversations in the gallery, distorted them, and added them back to a pre-recorded track. The MoMA, out of fear of privacy lawsuits or laziness only plays the original ambient recording. You can hear a sample below. By the way, the cosmotron was a particle accelerator used in nuclear physics. He was obsessed with “the bomb” after all.

This is the first post of many about this exhibition. Please go! At MoMA until October 2nd.