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Art review: Bruce Conner at Michael Kohn Gallery

November 20, 2009 | 11:00 am

400.conner.BC2671 The first exhibition of Bruce Conner's work since his death last year zeros in on the 1970s. It's a peculiar choice for a show and one that Conner, an irascible malcontent, would probably love.

His works from that decade are not as revered as his groundbreaking movies from the '50s, his gnarly assemblages from the '60s, his rollicking collages from the '80s or his mesmerizing inkblot drawings from the '90s and on. The '70s seemed to catch Conner in a rut, stubbornly persisting against the futility of it all and never breaking through to an aesthetic resolution that would make it all worthwhile.

 At Michael Kohn Gallery, the 45 paintings, drawings, photographs, sculptures, books, lithographs and movie brought together for Bruce Conner in the 1970s make you think of the legendary artist's work from that decade differently. Rather than being the low point of a long career filled with highlights, the '70s represent the purest expression of Conner's profound suspicion of anything that smacks of success, stinks of inauthenticity or reeks of entitlement. It's all about defiance and rejection.

At the same time, he never romanticized failure for its own sake. His handcrafted abstractions, made with common felt-tip pens on ordinary sketchbook pages, begin with small, meaningless marks. Slowly, restlessly and intuitively, they worm their way toward something like the grungy underside of cosmic insight. Call it gutter sublime. It's also there in Conner's modestly sized two-tone paintings, in which exhaustion is palpable and despair too close for comfort.

His point-blank photographs feature famous and forgotten members of San Francisco punk bands performing as if their lives depended on it. Conner's pictures are intimate and alien, matter-of-factly capturing the way disdain and desire energized these misfits.

The paralysis and insanity of full-blown paranoia are a hairbreadth away from many of the works in the smartly selected show, and their menacing proximity gives Conner's powerfully conflicted works their bite and bravery.

– David Pagel

Michael Kohn Gallery, 8071 Beverly Blvd., L.A., (323) 658-8088, through Dec. 19. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Image: Roz of the punk rock band Negative Trend, 1978. Credit: From Michael Kohn Gallery.