Jean Conner: Collages


Jean Conner: Collages

By Genevieve Quick February 5, 2015

At Gallery Paule Anglim, Jean Conner presents thirteen meticulously crafted collages created over an almost fifty-year period. While the world has dramatically changed in Conner’s lifetime, much remains the same: Global and spiritual themes remain relevant, as do the banality and mysteriousness of domestic spaces. Assembled from magazine pages, Conner’s collages demonstrate her striking skill in juxtaposing images in both maximalist compositions and quietly restrained works. In bringing together disparate imagery, Conner creates intriguingly enigmatic formal compositions and narratives.

Jean Conner. Arrival of the Magi, 1971; paper collage; 27½ x 20 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Gallery Paule Anglim.

In the late ‘60s and ‘70s, mass-media coverage of the first moonwalk, the Vietnam War, President Nixon’s trip to China, and more brought the world into the homes of the average Americans. Through television and magazines, the world became less distant as Americans witnessed both triumphant and horrific events. Reflective of this social context and subject matter, Conner’s Arrival of the Magi (1971) is a complex and ambitiously scaled collage. As with the biblical story of three wise men traveling with offerings to witness the birth of Jesus, Conner assembles an international range of dancing figures, gift offerings, camels, embellished royalty, religious figures, and peasants in a desert landscape. As a departure from conventional religious imagery, Conner refrains from depicting Jesus. This omission creates space for a more secular reading; magi also have historical and etymological roots in Zoroastrianism, mysticism, astrology, and magic. While the magi are typically depicted piously leaning, gesturing, or looking toward the infant Jesus, Conner uses frontally posed figures, many of which expectantly stare back at the viewer. As mass media allowed Americans to begin looking at the world, this very medium also allowed it to look back at us.

With its rocky coastline, Conner’s The Big Deal (1981) depicts geography more familiar to us in Northern California. In the foreground, a group of young men in straw hats, shorts, and rolled-up pants suggest the warmth of summer or a tropical climate. The men appear to be pushing at a group of professional football players in helmets, pads, and uniforms. Conner juxtaposes the dynamism of the football players as they tumble and thrust themselves upon one another with the group of pushing men. With the contrast between relatively bared and equipped bodies, Conner creates a parallel between the two groups who are engaged in play and/or work. In the distant background, a man in a jet pack hovers over the ocean, and an opulently dressed gentleman extends his arms, commencing, sanctifying, refereeing, or witnessing the event. In Conner’s The Big Deal, everyone has a role, but the ultimate goal is ambiguous.

Jean Conner. Summer-East River, 1968; paper collage; 13¾  x 10 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Gallery Paule Anglim.

In contrast to the intricacy of Arrival of the Magi and The Big Deal, Conner demonstrates her restraint with a more pared-down composition and subject matter in Summer-East River (1968). Simply constructed, a single dark sepia-toned image occupies most of the work. An open window frames a darkened landscape, possibly at dusk or just after sunrise, times suggestive of transition or magic. While the title Summer East River may suggest a view of New York’s East River, its date and expansive, low-rise landscape is not the Manhattan or Brooklyn of today. However, one large structure seems to dominate the architectural landscape, suggesting the eventual move toward high-rises. Conner has carefully cut out a portion of a dog’s mouth, with its nose, teeth, and tongue morphing with the larger building. The black cavity of the dog’s mouth blends almost seamlessly with the darkened landscape. As the dog’s tongue is pushed toward the side, the imagery ambiguously suggests the motion of a playing or attacking dog. Though there’s no view of the dog’s eyes or tail, the two stark white canine teeth appear menacing. While understated, the allusion points to the predatory development of landscape as witnessed from an individual’s home.

Jean Conner. Untitled (Mother Daughter), 1980; paper collage; 13½ x 9¾ in. Courtesy of the Artist and Gallery Paule Anglim.

Conner continues to demonstrate her measured restraint in Untitled (Mother Daughter) (1980), in which a simple combination of several elements creates an alluring visual play. Most of the collage consists of a portrait of a mother and daughter in coordinating pink tops. Rather than following the contour of the shape, Conner overlays a rectangular image of a pair of eyes accented with a large gemstone fillet. Conner’s blunt rectangle calls attention to her collage, rather than creating the seamlessness demonstrated in many of the other pieces. While the inset eyes are larger than the mother’s and daughter’s would be, Conner creates a continuity through placement. The eyes almost render the mother and daughter as cyclopean. Additionally, three pink lips float in a vertical stack between them. While blending in with the pink clothes, the scale and placement of the lips correspond to the enlarged eyes, almost completing the construction of a face. In combining a mother and daughter with a mysterious third face, Conner ties multiple representations, generations, or apparitions of women together.

Conner’s collages suggest the expanded world that mass media produces and the wonderment of imagery. While her complex pieces are strongly provocative, Conner’s real strength lies in her simpler pieces that demonstrate her confidence and skill in selection, placement, and juxtaposition. Conner creates surprising amounts of visual play, leading to strong formal compositions and intriguing ideas. 

Jean Conner Collages is on view at Anglim Gilbert Gallery, in San Francisco, through February 7, 2015.

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