Tuesday, July 08, 2008

when ink blots are sad...

bruce conner ink blot drawing

sad news today, artist bruce conner passed away in san francisco on monday. for me, he was the artist who most signified forging your own path without compromise.

i remember being bored to tears at the 97 whitney biennial until i wandered into a room of conner's drawings, which seemed not only relevant, but stunningly beautiful and comforting in the midst of a show that gave me much eye-sickness. at the time, he was in his 60's.

i have thought of that moment often, in relation to my own career, as well when i work with grad students, because even though conner probably felt slighted and underappreciated up to that point, you can't discount the difference in being in a show like that at 28 or 60 - both what it means to the artist, as well as the quality of the work shown. even more so, it suggested that what would now be considered a slower career path has a purpose - to be able to work in solitude, to forge your own path outside of market or social concerns, and to find your own voice. plus... conner's room in the 97 whitney really kicked some serious ass, and almost every other artist i talked to about the show mentioned his work before anything else.

in its own quiet way, conner's work was cantankerous, but never at the expense of being incredibly poetic and moving. i remember walking through his 'retrospective' and thinking so much of the work and its installation seemed to be flipping someone or something the bird. the tactile qualities and solitary labor in his work were incredibly refreshing at a time when french theory surrounding the simulacrum was being shoveled down my throat in grad school. while i always felt conner's work approached elegance, it also seemed to come out of the simple spoken truth: 'shit or get off the pot'. you got the sense from it that he simply sat down and went to work with a purpose.

it came as no surprise to me to discover that he photographed much of the early san francisco punk scene, because his work has that spirit that punk rock created in a lot of people who participated in its early days - when it was creative and open, before it became codified and angry (and pretty darn boring...). even in the ink blots, which are incredibly elegant, connor seems to kind of dare you to question their sincerity and labor, because on one level they are intricate controlled drawings, but on another they are simply drops of ink on folded paper. if you buy into them, you partially buy into a kind of alchemy, and thus a level of belief (one rarely speaks of punk rock in terms of belief, but for those of us who were there in the early days, it actually held much hope and creative presence - and perhaps that is why so many people involved ended up as artists...) it's interesting to think about conner's works in relation to a punk rock spirit, because they don't wear what would typically be described as a punk aesthetic on their outsides as much as they are imbued with a kind of independent spirit on the inside (an independent spirit is both personal and highly evolved... in relation to conner, how can one not think of jess, or cornell...). i think this feeling pervades all of his work.

the ink blot drawings and earlier psychedelic felt tip pen drawings (hyper obsessive versions of every high school stoner's notebook doodles) clicked with a kind of psychedelia that was uniquely san franciscan. it is interesting to see how much of a rebel conner seems next to someone like terry riley, with whom he collaborated a few times. where riley, can dive whole hog into some seriously new age territory, conner never seemed to lose that rebellious edge; and it is this that gives his work so much weight for me. he's never willing to simply hand you sugar, because he wants you to have to work a little, to come to his work on his terms.

i've always felt that conner's work questions the idea of pure beauty, as much as it embraces it; and it contains not only the fluffiness of the spirit, but accepts and willingly inserts, the darker aspects of the spirit in heaping tablespoon doses. the ink blot drawings are the culmination of this for me. it takes a while to wander through them, and to discover both their beauty, and their darkness. they also seem to slyly question the idea that meaning in work is completely embedded and controlled by the artist, in that each one is populated by hundreds of tiny rorschach blots... the thing that more than anything else, is the most recognizable cultural symbol of a viewer creating meaning through his own inner desires... artwork as a trigger of self knowledge. by the time you arrive at the end of your their journey into one of these complex visual worlds, you will have seen, or found, more about yourself, and the artist, than you probably bargained for.

the image above is one of my prized possessions, a tiny (and i mean TINY) drawing, probably from the early 1980's.

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3 Comments:

Blogger Jeremy said...

steve - any pointers to good sites for his material on the web? 'Fess up time: I had not heard of him, though just viewed his eno/byrne video. the inkblot drawing is indeed sublime.

12:37 AM  
Anonymous billy g said...

ah sad.

6:40 AM  
Anonymous Xerox 8400 ink said...

Wow! That was quite the story telling! Im quite amazed at all the things you've done! No wonder your soo happy! Well I hope you had your fun and excitement. In the mean while, as winters kicking in right now, we might be expecting some change! A change in weather hopefully to the better, it either has to rain or not! Mother nature is playing games with us :}
-Much LoVe

3:47 PM  

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