Saturday, January 16, 2010

Breakaway from Everyday: Bruce Conner at SFMOMA

Conner was already a critically recognized assemblage artist when he turned to cinema in his mid-20s. Using what became his trademark assemblage technique, he combined diverse materials such as old movies, newsreels and stock footage into surrealistic montages. Each film pops and jerks to an interior and sometimes disturbing rhythm.

His 1966 “Breakaway,” now on view at SFOMA, features his original footage of the singer and choreographer Antonia Christina Basilotta, a k a Toni Basil. She looks like she's having the time of her life, dancing to her own rendition of the catchy song of the title. (“I’m gonna breakaway, breakaway from the everyday.”). Her self-conscious physical joy in her own body, hair whipping around, body jerking and thrashing, is another kind of explosion, similar to images in Conner's other iconic films, featuring stock footage of the atomic bomb. She's da bomb, just as explosive and maybe (even) just as lethal.

Kenneth Baker comments that Conner steals the show:

"So-called media arts steal the show in SFMOMA's anniversary medley, thanks mainly to the late Bruce Conner, whose "Three Screen Ray" (2006) will meet a wide audience here for the first time as a three-channel projected video. It anchors "Long Play: Bruce Conner and the Singles Collection," which puts "Three Screen Ray" alongside music-inspired video works by various other artists, all to bolster curator Rudolf Frieling's startling view of Conner as the precursor of music videos."*

I disagree because I'm not blase about the line up of superb pieces from artists as diverse as Weston, Pollock, Eva Hesse and Diebenkorn (to name a few). But the Conner installation does dominate the second floor landing, largely because the sound is so loud. During the press preview, it was so intrusive that it was difficult to hear the curator's talk and the noise blasted into the space where the large, serene and iconic pieces by Diebenkorn are hung.

A rotating series of "singles," single-channel video works from the SFMOMA collection related to music or appropriating found footage, is presented in an adjoining gallery alongside the late San Francisco-based artist's 1996 film BREAKAWAY, which was a forerunner of the music video genre. The May program of "bonus tracks" moves beyond SFMOMA's collection to feature contemporary videos on loan from Bay Area-based artists.

* I don't understand the snarky reference to "so-called media arts." What else are pieces which combine sound, film, and installation to be called?

Breakaway @ SFMOMA

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