On ViewSan José Museum of Art
Jean Conner: Collage
May 6 – September 25, 2022
San José, California
To say that Jean Conner’s first museum exhibition is long overdue is an understatement. Belonging to a generation of Bay Area artists that solidified the idea of artist as alchemist, she has been active since the late 1950s, shortly after moving to San Francisco from the Midwest with her husband, conceptual artist Bruce Conner. Settling in the city’s Fillmore district, the couple quickly became central to a creative community that rejected commercial representation and institutional validation in order to pursue experiments that challenged the materiality of art and channeled the free-spirited thinking of local subcultures. This proclivity for unconventional paths might explain why Conner and others associated with the tragically underrated Beat Generation are only recently gaining recognition outside California. Unlike her peers, however, Conner did not regularly exhibit her work for most of her career. Instead, she retreated into the role of spouse and caregiver, gravitating to collage because it was manageable. Organized by the San José Museum of Art as part of a larger initiative that seeks to generate national interest in underrecognized women artists, Jean Conner: Collage presents a selection of works spanning six decades, offering a glimpse into a quiet yet formidable art practice.
This simply titled exhibition contains nearly eighty works that are hung in five thematic sections across several galleries of the museum. Created between 1957 and 2021, Conner’s modestly-sized collages vary from pared down black-and-white compositions, such as Nixon (1959), which shows the American president in the back seat of a car as two strange figures peer into its rear window, to intricately layered explosions of color and form, as seen in Blue Pyramid I (1970) and Blue Pyramid II (1978), two related works that merge fantasy and femininity in lush blue hues that accentuate the sensual poses of women adorned in feathers, grapes, and satin.
Thematic groupings draw the viewer’s attention to the different techniques used to construct her collages. Works that fall under the “Through the Looking Glass” section, for example, demonstrate how reflective surfaces, whether images of mirrors or cutouts of land or sky, serve as illusionistic devices that suggest the presence of portals. In Mirage (1994), a desolate desert road in the foreground is punctuated with square and rectangular cutouts of cloud cover and a puddle-like formation of a gray upside-down sky that meets foothills. Overhead, where one would expect to see the sky above the road, an aerial view of a second desert landscape serves as the backdrop to a cutout of blue sky in the shape of two seated figures. The scene unfolds across multiple planes, yet Conner uses the one-point perspective at the work’s center to suggest that the scene continues beyond the surface of the collage. This trick of the eye invokes Early Renaissance painting, and is one of several indications in the exhibition that Conner is working with a long trajectory of art in mind.
Conner’s collages range from playful to contemplative with their otherworldly scenes and surrealist views of the familiar, yet the most striking aspect of her work is the extent to which she uses the medium for formalist pursuits. In a number of examples, it is difficult to discern where a cutout image ends and where another begins, as in a 1983 untitled collage that shows the neck and head of a woman whose back is to the viewer and a second woman in profile placed at the center whose perfectly coiffed hair matches the texture, color, and cut of the first. Women are frequent protagonists of these carefully assembled scenes, but the overall feel of the works suggests that early on Conner was more concerned with the oversaturation of images in popular media and the power of advertising to groom consumers than an overt feminist agenda.
The majority of her collages are composed of images from mid-century periodicals like Life magazine and the more niche Ladies’ Home Journal, where social norms, including prescribed gender roles, were on full display. In addition to providing source material, these publications allow her to realize intense color saturation, as she often meticulously paired objects and figures that might not relate in subject matter but that together create a nearly monochromatic color scheme, like in the standout work Tomato Soup (1960), which combines an advertisement for cosmetics with images of tomato and strawberry plants, with a bowl of tomato soup that serves as a platform for a white chicken wearing a festive garland. In addition to the vivid reds that compose the piece, Conner cleverly creates depth and dimension by placing an emphasis on the circular forms of her cutouts. Looking at her work closely is a treat, as there is much to discover and endless lessons to be gleaned from her experiments. Conner makes a strong case for the radical aesthetic potential of collage. Although she doesn’t make it look easy, she does make the process look fun.