Invitations to the Imagination | Art Review | Chicago Reader

Invitations to the Imagination 

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Bruce Conner

at Alan Koppel, through June 14

Susan Barron

at Printworks, through June 1

In addition to drawings, engravings, and assemblages, Bruce Conner makes films. His 1958 A Movie is a witty compendium of found footage of disasters--a torpedo exploding, a bridge collapsing--while his 1977 Take the 5:10 to Dreamland strikes a more delicate note with unrelated, quiet images that recall the collages and boxes of Joseph Cornell. But unlike Cornell's art, Conner's collaged films focus on the physicality of the image: there's a graphic intensity to Crossroads (1976), a 35-minute collection of footage of a 1946 atomic bomb test that begins to seem a study in shapes.

Cornell is doubtless an influence on Conner's 12 collages at Alan Koppel, but whereas Cornell's objects suggest transcendence of the physical, Conner's appear physically entrapping; at the same time, he seems fascinated by his materials, mostly found engravings and woodcut prints he cuts and pastes. In Secret Garden (1996), the viewer is led by a cutout rectangle of flowers, trees, and butterflies to think of an entryway, a window. But the eye's movement inward is stopped by the center's even denser black-and-white floral pattern. At the center of The Countess Potozokl (1995) is a woman's head and torso; her right eye is covered by one butterfly wing while others sprout from the left side of her face. Here Conner creates a dialogue between suggestiveness and entrapment. On the one hand, this is a Cornell-like confection, the countess made more mysterious by her wings; on the other, the eye feels blocked by the wings even as they suggest flight.

Conner told Los Angeles gallery owner Michael Kohn in a 1997 interview, "I like to see my drawings and engraving collages as objects, as their own phenomena." In the same interview he also said, "I sometimes approach engraving collages as if they were illustrations for an unknown publication....They imply a structure and meaning which are elusive. I am interested in the moment of wonder, of not comprehending all of my experience in an adult context." (Similarly, filmmaker Stan Brakhage once questioned "how many colors" would be seen by a baby who hadn't yet learned the word "green.") There are suggestions of religious symbolism in A Point Well Taken (1987)--a finger pointing up toward a beam of light, a partially obscured Christlike figure. Two tiny circular insets at the bottom show outdoor travelers with their backs to us; one of the compositions--two men gesturing toward the sky--suggests Caspar David Friedrich. Inviting various associations, Conner opens up rather than closes down meaning. Still, his collages remain utterly physical--here the circular and rectangular insets compete, creating graphic collisions.

An untitled 1987 work, perhaps the strongest of the 12, captures well the "moment of wonder." At the center of a dense thicket, a masked face and disembodied arms float, trailing a parasol-like hexagon with a "handle" that makes it seem a piece of scientific equipment--or are its wires actually stems and leaves? Ambiguity seems the point: the face reveals little, merely suggesting the facelessness of a Friedrich voyager seen from behind. But here, instead of traveling to the top of a mountain or toward a distant sunset, he's caught in his own mask.

Like Cornell's work, Susan Barron's photographs, drawings, and collages point to something beyond themselves. The centerpiece of her exhibit at Printworks is her 1981 book Another Song, which includes 40 of her black-and-white nature photographs printed very small and three poems John Cage wrote in response to them. (The book's pages are exhibited on the wall, and a bound volume is available for viewing.) Barron's untitled photos filled with leaves, grass, branches, and bodies of water have a contemplative quality that takes the viewer to a wordless place beyond the physical. In one, the dark silhouette of a tree yields to the glowing light of the water behind it; at first perceived as its opposite, the tree comes to seem as blank and insubstantial as the water. In another, a maze of debris almost chokes a bright stream that nevertheless leads upward, out of the picture frame. In a third, a thicket of plants invites the eye inward, toward a mysterious, almost empty center. It's not as if the plants' gently textured grays were a trap: though the image looks cluttered at first, it resolves into something quiet and empty.

Cage's aleatoric music was heavily influenced by his studies of Eastern philosophy, and it's not hard to guess what appealed to him in Barron's photographs: she's present in the way the photos are similarly styled yet absent in that her style creates a sense of passing through lights and darks toward something invisible. Cage's often enigmatic poems vary between the descriptive and the narrative, but at times he suggests the union of opposites the photos also reveal: old and young, decayed and firm, in the line "loose withered grass, a clump of birches."

The 40 other Barron works on view--collages, drawings, and photographs--are similarly unlike Conner's: instead of trapping us in the physical, they open out to the invisible. A close-up of a sheet impresses as a study in elusive whiteness, not wrinkles--folds are few and ill defined. An untitled collage includes a few figures and fragments of faces and words--and lots of empty space. Another appears to be densely packed, but the viewer who threads his way through its thicket of forms will find at the center a group of archways nestled together, leading inward toward the smallest archway, which leads to a blank gray. If Conner's juxtapositions and unexplained elements unfix the meaning of his objects, Barron seems to use the physical world to reach a place beyond conventional meaning.

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