There are prints of Bruce Conner’s that become gently graphed onto one’s visual cortex if given enough viewing time. The effect is fleeting, but unmistakable, and it’s what gives this exhibition its title, “Afterimage.” It is uncommon to anchor a body of offset lithographs in the viewer’s sensual experience, but that is precisely what Conner’s early efforts were meant to do. Without intent, one’s gaze deepens to a stare, tracing tightly wound, jet-black, labyrinthine lines across a creamy white page. It is hypnotic and mildly disorienting. Because these abstract images refer primarily to themselves, to their own mitochondrial patterns and the process required to produce them, they permit few external associations. They are not so much moving as stilling, and in this way the experience of the prints becomes incredibly personal. Peter Boswell acknowledges this in a thoughtful essay accompanying the exhibition when he quotes the artist, who remarked, “this work is for the private eye, not the public.”
Conner (1933-2008) was a Midwestern boy who moved to San Francisco in his late twenties just as the era of the Beatnik was giving way to that of the Hippie, and Conner’s drawing practice caught an element of the Zeitgeist. To create his mazelike compositions (most executed between 1964 and 1969) Conner would sit for hours, lifting pen from paper only when the ink was nearly gone and his unbroken line filled almost the entire page. In such a practice one can recognize the desire for a transcendent experience, but Conner wasn’t after that alone. He was also interested in experimenting with the formal qualities of a negative space that would oscillate with its positive counterpart. The result is a line drawing with very little pictorial depth, as flat as the plains Conner grew up in.
The titles he chose extend the self-referential nature of the drawings as well as their orientation toward process. SET OF FOUR is a just that, a set of four drawings. SET OF SIX is a set of six. They weren’t created as sets; Conner grouped them when he began to turn the drawings into prints. Sometimes, as in SET OF SIX, one can see simple geometric themes such as a circle occurring in varied formations. Other times his selection seems more intuitive. The prints that comprise SET OF FIVE are not united by a geometric motif but share an allover aesthetic that, like an Ab-Ex painting, gives the impression that the image could extend well beyond the edge of the page.
In other works Conner’s natural inclination towards repetition and serialization emerges somewhat differently. In three distinct and powerful prints the artist organized inkblots into vertical lines, creating what looks like a hieroglyphic language. Here another kind of optical illusion occurs: in one’s peripheral vision the blots register as images—deer, car, bird, tree, dancer, skull—but the moment one looks directly at them they reveal themselves to be merely symmetrical and suggestive, absolutely not representational.
MEMORIAL INSCRIPTION (2002/1999) is unique among these pieces in so far as it makes a concise reference to writing (and therefore language) as well as to history and memory. It’s impossible to say what, exactly, is being memorialized because Conner’s “inscription” is not conventionally decipherable. This isn’t off-putting; it imbues the work with an enigmatic character that shifts the viewer’s frame of reference away from cognition towards imagination.
By comparison, the latest works in the exhibition, a pair of lovely lithographs of leaves, are exceptionally straightforward. These prints, which Conner signed “ANONYMOUS” and “ANONYMOUSE” were made in memory of those who died in the attack on the World Trade Center. LEAF SEPTEMBER 11 – DECEMBER 7, 2001 (2001) has the appearance of decay about it, but in its brittle bits one might also recognize the swirling wispiness of galaxies.
Hung rather conspicuously across the gallery from the small and delicate leaves is BOMBHEAD (2002). In this inkjet print the neck and head of someone wearing a suit and tie has been replaced with a mushroom cloud. It’s comical and disturbing in equal measures. From a metaphorical perspective it may be evoking the notion that aggression is an ultimately consuming and senseless force. Conner replaced the seat of comprehension and awareness with an image of violence and in doing so not only dehumanizes the individual portrayed but makes that person completely anonymous.
Bruce Conner’s career spanned 50 years, and though his early offset lithographs look sharp now, it’s worth noting that the art establishment mostly snubbed them. Offset printing was considered a graceless commercial process, but Conner chose it over the more conventional processes of hand printing. He wanted precision, perfection, and preservation. That these 40-year-old prints hang so beautifully alongside Conner’s late work is a testament to the artist’s vision, to his artistic integrity, and unwillingness to follow the course of the mainstream.
The show is on view at Senior & Shopmaker, New York until 17 November 2012.