Someplace….Not Too Far Away: Bruce and Jean Conner at the University of Nebraska, Sheldon Museum of Art, through May 8, 2016.

rev., February 16, 2016.

Disclaimer: In my New York years, I talked with Bruce Conner a number of times, when in the late 1980s he was emerging from utter obscurity (my impression, though I might’ve been overly influenced in this construction of time by Different Drummer (1988) at the Hirschhorn Museum, which I saw, and which purported to return to favor forgotten artists like Jess and Wallace Berman, as well as Luis Jimenez) appearing here and there in out of the way group shows, to finally secure a modest place in American art remembrance in the 90s and 00s. This exhibition did therefore have a “back to the beginning” aura for me, though I concede a predilection to favor Conner, tho if Jean Conner had rocked it, then……).

The small exhibition, Someplace…Not Too Far Away, at the Sheldon Museum this Spring, is a studious, tidy, enticing, but ultimately spurious exercise in academic neatening up of art history. It dips into the curious fact that rather well-known San Francisco assemblage artist Bruce Conner, born in Kansas in 1933, went to undergrad art school at the University of Nebraska, and there also met his wife, the artist Jean Conner. This is always a nifty nexus, and the hope would be that the connectives would be strong, representing those years as critical to the artist’s development. The exhibition, because of its small size, requiring only incidental presence of all the players involved, almost gets away with proving its claim that teacher influenced pupil, and married artists influenced each other, but ultimately upon closer inspection, in considering what is really going on in all the work on display, it is clear that Conner himself remains the odd man out, or rather, the only artist that comes forward, all the others left in the anecdotal background. The exhibition attempts to create a documentary atmosphere by presenting us with a copy of Conner’s diploma from UNL, proving that he really was here, and then there are some yearbooks, no less, in which Conner’s wife is picked out of the ground gazing in a staged group studio shot at some teacher’s art. This is sweet stuff, and always fun to look back upon. No problem with any of that.

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But then, in so far as the installation hangs the work of teacher, then pupil, together, there is certainly the inference that the rather whitish quasi-abstraction, White Sky (1954), by Rudy Pozzati, Conner’s teacher, is directly related in the making of Cosmos (1956) by Bruce Connor. I mean, they’re both white, both abstract, both have something to with nature or space, and they are both painted. But the problem is, each work exists in a completely different part of the universe of painting, and it seems more likely that Pozzati could not figure out what Conner was up to. Pozzati’s White Sky has a cubistic sort of foreground that suggests a rocky landscape, and then over it is a sky blotched with other patches of greys and even lavenders.

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The work is redolent of the quasi-abstract work that emerged in American art after Cubism and before Jackson Pollock, which absorbed a few of the lessons of abstraction, but really only adapted modernistic appearances to continue to paint in rather traditional ways relative to the space of the painting. I love all this kind of art (Baziotes, Gottlieb, Graves, Tobey, etc.), as it evinces an unfortunate reality that most of us stumble through life with only limited understanding of the big issues of the day, and do the best we can. In the Pozzati, there is no actual surface space, but an assumed clearing through to the fictive space, and in that space Pozzati builds up with a tachiste method a pleasant heap of abstract forms suggestive of cliffs or mountains. But all of this remains, for its painterly thickness, in the foreground, of a sky that in turn remains a background, and Pozzati could not even resist making tachiste blobs to suggest clouds. In other words, Pozzati painted a traditional landscape, he just modernized it, so it looked more advanced, when it was not.

Step next frame over, and, whoa, vertigo time. We are no longer in the same place in the universe. Cosmos (1956) has some very strange spatial obstructionism going on.

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First of all, it presents itself as a painted wall, as if it has slammed the door shut on the fictive space behind it. This is suggested by the strange demarcations of a shiny frame-like area of paint, then a secondary space behind or even only beside it. Without being entirely sure what it means, it is clear that some threshold has been instrumentalized to change painting. Already, then, in 1956, Conner wanted to be in front of the canvas, in the literal, physical space populated later by the likes of Donald Judd and Richard Artschwager. Even weirder is that Connor then does get a bit anecdotal, in relation to the title, by putting smack dab in the middle of the central recessed space a planetary circle whose surface has then been intensely scored as if by a prisoner trying to get out of a cell with maybe the back of the brush.

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Some of the scoring even scratches down to the red underlayer, an act with painful implication, and not a little claustrophobic vibe.

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Adjacent to that is a “moon” to this central orb, and as with its larger form, its edge it raised so high off the canvas, it’s like it is coming off.

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Connor then answers that question, above, by stamping on another circle that looks like a pod of pure paint, like a post-it note, possibly painted and let dry somewhere else, and then just stuck on the surface, it almost looks like you could peel it off. The whole thing feels like a chunk of wall, with not a hint of the space of traditional painting behind it. It is situated so differently visa vis it’s prototype, that one wonders what Pozzati might have said of it. The added difficulty is that while Pozzati’s compromising work feels rationalized and sane, Conner’s work has pulled off into a stubborn crawlspace that feels so insistent on losing his way, if need be, that it seems closed to influence: but it has an emotional life all its own, for that (the irony here in my treatment here is the Jean Conner, as in Untitled (1955), tempera on paper, follows dutifully in Pozzati’s footprint).

The problem of the teacher-student influence is again laid open to question in another swell pairing, on the next wall, of a lovely quasi-abstract middling modernist work, LeRoy Burket’s Quarry (1954), and then Conner’s Pariah (1954). Here again, worlds away.The Burket again exudes that comfort-art feeling of belongingness in the universe that good landscape should. Even more than the Pozzati, it is a landscape disguised as an abstraction, with Burket’s even more “conservatively” working pictorial space out in the fictive zone of the scene, and putting the rough edges of a quarry, nicely done as lozenge rectangles, before a grey sky, that even has a sort of abstracted, grabbing moon. It has its cake and eats it too: always a pleasing formula.

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But the Conner? Pariah represents the other side of Conner’s painting at the time (again, assuming that he is already pulling back into intense proxemic personal space this side of painting, and into assemblage space close to his body). Like I said, worlds away.

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Pariah is a classic example of a haunted picture, it represents a physiognomic perception, or simulacrum of a face or figure seen on a factured surface, swiftly brought to life by envisioning it in paint. By far the best work of art in the show, Pariah though fascinates for existing in a no man’s land space in but not quite in the painting, or even coming at or pushed against the painting. That is, it is possible, as Conner is working with a Masonite surface, that he saw a face and figure of a ghostly figure either rising up out of or hovering over it, and quickly rendered it, or he had a notion of being haunted behind his back, standing in front of the painting, and then blew or pushed that smoky figure into the painting. I say this because the figure hangs suspended in space, disconnected from its ground, but also ambivalent about its relation to the painting itself. And the execution of the painting shows this: the face is like a mask floating in air, in a haunting, it exists on its own, without relation to any surface, but then the body about it, it burns and flutters up around it, like a halo or burning mandorla, and then sweeps down in a thick foggy smoky downdraft of brown miasma to the bottom.

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But then if you look up at it, it is again, as in Cosmos, covered in these strange scratch marks, everywhere, by the hundreds, as if Conner is trying to, what? scratch it away from him, or have, or take possession of her.

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By my reading, then, the figure exists entirely in the space between Conner and the wall, and barely touches upon the painting: it is space that Burket shows little evidence of understanding as a place where art can be made. (At the same time, though, as there are two additional sketches in this mode, it is suggested that this is one of those “signature” works that students sometimes do, thinking it a breakthrough that is, momentarily, really good, then they try to emulate in a body of work based on it, but in the end they do not know exactly where it came from or how to get back to it either, so it ends up a lonely monument to experimentation—it happens).

In addition, seeing that both the Pozzatti and the Burket are abstracted landscapes, if you will, and Connor is way off that, and the exhibition title is about, “someplace,” the difference offers a moment to muse on what might be revealed here an existential dimension of Nebraska-based art. With landscape hanging on so strongly, even in contemporary galleries, as a genre still rubbing right up alongside of “conceptual contemporary art,” one wonders if it is in landscape that Nebraska artists ground their existential sense of the world. It’s almost as it seventy five years ago a mythical group of artists assembled at the Missouri River front in Omaha, and, in a second, aesthetic settling, pulled a large tarpaulin made out of canvas across the state, all the way to the panhandle, to make a canvas flatland and painterly big sky into the twin tabula rasa upon which Nebraskan artists project their feelings about life ever after. But against this landscape fundamentalism, there is also the less heard what might be called Hopper-Wood tradition of the haunted farm house, inside of which the ills of claustrophobia are apparent, and expressed, and then if you run away from that into the fields again it’s only to encounter UFOs. Using this simple schematic, it’s clear that while Pozzati and Burket sought to incorporate modernism into landscape, Conner had no interest in that program, he was stuck in the haunted house (Pariah), wanted to get out, and, when he did (in his mind), saw UFOS (Cosmos) (The haunted farmhouse tradition is given much better expression in American movies, and, by the way, the movies have also devised what might be called a bridging formation between the two syndromes, the corn maze movie, of which there are hundreds, and one DOES wonder why more “corn maze” contemporary art is not generated in art centers in the state).

Finally, with July George: Portrait of George Herms (1962; reworked, 1991) (now clearly retreating entirely into the haunted farmhouse and its old knick-knack material culture), Conner completes his retreat from the mission of painting to the immediate-at-hand assemblage space in the proxemical zone around his own body.

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This is the space where his agency as artist comes alive, and it is fitting that this is demonstrated in a kind of relic-trophy-based but votive assemblage in honor of a friend. Thinking of this formally in relation to the Pozzati painting behind it, it’s almost as if Conner has reached into the space of painting, and pulled all its contents out on the floor in front of the painting, and worked to build something up from the physical detritus of the painting he has gutted. The frame has now been repurposed as a framelike mount-shelf that holds a copy of a book, a few pages of manuscript, its space is in turn made cult space by affixing little mementos, a heartshaped locket with Jesus on it, other little bits, to the interior side walls.

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A drape of old rope is tossed over the top of the structure, perhaps to joke as a reference to hair, but once again on top tiny mementos are arranged as one might do so on a mantel or a shelf, little things to sweetly remember one by. Getting almost shrinelike, exuding the mystic aura of a Roman lares altar, the external mount is a stepped device with the steps on the sides holding strange abstractions, a clear glass ball, a weird compressed ball of something (cork? this is where the planets of cosmos have crashed) and even pieces of dirty, rusted cans laid out just for the heck of it.

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Out in front of the whole shrine, is a smooth black stone (another possibly Conner-carved rock also mounted on the base, both likely with memorial purpose).

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Though there is no need for the viewer to know what each item means, the warm and woozy feeling that the piece exudes leaves no doubt that this was a loving shrine (even if no doubt including several caustic guy-talk jokes) by one artist for another. It’s a classic, a terrific Conner, and even more so, in the context of this exhibition, for showing the training wheels of creativity slip off and an artist emerge into his own milieu and agentic array, and make actual art, it’s the culmination of the proceedings. This path to get to this work, however, is here almost muddied by the additional inclusion of a few additional works by Jean Conner

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but they were not of much interest, and then another instructor, David Seyler, ditto (how Dance is a Silent Song (1957) connects, who knows?), this show is all about Bruce Conner, which is a good thing, but it does leave one to wonder–how exactly does an artist come into their own? because it does not appear, by this example, that there are any clearly GPS’d connections between teacher and student.

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