Punk invades MCA this Friday: Steven Wolf on West Coast punk
Define Bruce Conner's role in that world and his significance now, looking back.
We're trying to make the case that, although west coast kids were certainly influenced by the Sex Pistols and clothespin fashion from London, they also had local aesthetic models to draw from, and Conner was one of them. In general, Conner is a romantic with a wise ass way of doing things that harmonizes with punk. His early assemblages, with their torn nylon and rotting trash, project the sense of a decayed expiring culture that permeates punk music and fashion. He was also probably the first fine artist to incorporate pop music into his videos. Breakaway, for instance, which he made with Tony Basil in 1966, is shot and edited like an MTV video. Equally important, Conner hung around the scene, shot pictures for Search and Destroy Magazine, often showed his movies to the kids, and so could impact the scene on a personal level.
Who are some of the other major players who worked in the same milieu?
If we're talking about Conner's milieu, two people I like are Ginsberg and Wallace Berman. Ginsberg was always a friend to artists. On the East coast he helped Patti Smith when she was homeless. On the west coast, he helped fund Search and Destroy Magazine, and his debut ecstatic reading of Howl at the Six Gallery is easy to read as a precedent for punk rock.
In L.A., Berman electrified an underground circle of jazz-loving, junky artists from his home in Topanga Canyon, and he made his collages using an early version of the xerox machine, precisely the technology that fueled the design and dissemination of the punk rock collage flyer.
If you could choose one object or image as definitive of this smorgasbord of shows, what would it be?
One's pretty tough, because you've got punk, its pre-history and the dialogue that followed in its wake, but I'll choose three works from the MCA show.
Conner Family Trust, San Francisco/ARS, New York
Biafra by Conner, which shows Jello floating above the stage and seems to embody the recklessness and act of faith that was punk rock.
The Last Supper by Monte Cazazza, a little-known artist from San Francisco who was the only American member of Throbbing Gristle and was considered in his day to be the ne plus ultra of danger and unpredictability.
And Window Shade by Miranda July, which plays on the irony-drenched post-punk era's fear of punk sincerity.
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