September 25, 2013

Angels, we’ve heard . . . : Shelley Diekman on Bruce Conner and Edmund Shea

Beyond Belief: 100 Years of the Spiritual in Modern Art, jointly organized by SFMOMA and the Contemporary Jewish Museum (CJM), is on view at the CJM through October 27. Open Space presents a series of posts in which invited writers explore various aspects of the exhibition. Today’s post is a commentary by Shelley Diekman on the creation of the ANGELS series by Bruce Conner and his collaborator on these artworks, the San Francisco–based photographer Edmund Shea, who was her longtime partner.

Bruce Conner, SOUND OF ONE HAND ANGEL, 1974

Bruce Conner, SOUND OF ONE HAND ANGEL, 1974

In March 1971, Aretha Franklin played at the Fillmore in San Francisco. At the end of her concert she amazed the crowd by welcoming to the stage her friend Ray Charles, or as she introduced him, “The Righteous Reverend Ray Charles.” Edmund Shea was there.

Here’s your soundtrack to this post:

Bruce Conner might have been there, though I don’t know. I do know he loved Ray Charles, and everyone can see this in his second film, COSMIC RAY, which is often called the first music video. During that same year, 1961, he made an assemblage entitled RAY CHARLES/SNAKESKIN. I know, also, that Bruce loved gospel music; I remember him standing and clapping along to the Clark Sisters as they sang after a memorable Castro Theater screening of Say Amen, Somebody, a documentary about composer Thomas Dorsey. Over decades, Bruce worked on a film about the Soul Stirrers, a glorious, influential gospel quartet that began in 1926 and later launched Sam Cooke’s music career. Bruce’s long final illness almost always made film editing too tiring for him, but late in his life he did release HIS EYE IS ON THE SPARROW, a five-minute film featuring the Soul Stirrers, led by the haunting falsetto of R. H. Harris.

So, back to Aretha. The song is “Spirit in the Dark.” And that’s how I’ve always thought of the ANGELS, photograms that Bruce Conner and Edmund Shea made in the mid-1970s.

Bruce and Edmund were good friends. They were formidably intelligent and had fine senses of humor and worked well together. Edmund said that Bruce had originally thought of making the ANGELS differently—using standard photography, I think—and that Edmund suggested that they be photograms. This is a process, famously used by Man Ray, that doesn’t use a camera or lenses, only photosensitive paper exposed to light. If something covers or is in front of the paper, that area remains light after the exposure. If there’s no intervention, the paper darkens. Bruce stood in front of the large sheets of paper; the nearer his approach, the lighter the resulting area remained after having been exposed. In SOUND OF ONE HAND ANGEL, one of Bruce’s hands touches the paper, and it shines brightly.

Bruce was rigorously ethical (politically on the side of the angels) in his life and work, and wanted Edmund’s contribution to creating the ANGELS to be recognized. In a different vein, Bruce’s artistic practice also included quite a bit of questioning and subversion of the value of artistic identity. For example, he proposed that many men named Bruce Conner should gather at a Bruce Conner Convention or, on another occasion, that twenty-six of Bruce’s collages should be presented in an exhibition titled THE DENNIS HOPPER ONE MAN SHOW.

I met both Bruce and Edmund in 1975 while working at SFMOMA with artist Alberta Mayo. She held, at her groundbreaking Manitoba Museum of Finds Arts, a Bruce Conner Look Alike Contest and Bake Sale, which was won by my friend Chip Pain as seen in a photo wearing Sauna Pants and a devil’s horned skullcap. Edmund was the judge. It was a lot of fun to work in a museum in those days.

When SOUND OF ONE HAND ANGEL appeared in the exhibition Beyond Belief, a friend asked me if Bruce was religious. According to an interview with artist Jean Conner, his wife, he was not at all. When poet Michael McClure and Bruce were young in Kansas, they’d attend revival meetings of traveling evangelists for the sheer drama of the proclamations of salvation. And as people did then, and there, Bruce would have learned Bible verses and stories. Later, he employed biblical iconography in numerous works throughout his career. When he ran for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, in 1967, he filed a candidate’s statement for the voter information booklet that was composed entirely of verses from the Bible.

I’ve always found the ANGELS extremely lovely and touching (worth exploring: Bruce did a great series, TOUCH/DO NOT TOUCH), especially when shown all together. They are elegant and, in their ghostly way, somehow warm. SOUND OF ONE HAND ANGEL looks splendid in this show. Seeing it made me smile, and I could envision the two friends in Edmund’s studio, with the flash of light as Bruce stood near the paper affixed to the wall, and then the glowing image emerging as the paper darkened. Both of them adored and deeply understood music, and they may well have been listening to records that day. So I’ll throw to Aretha and Ray: start feeling the spirit in the dark.

Shelley Diekman worked for a long time for the Pacific Film Archive. She and Edmund Shea lived together very happily atop Bernal Hill for seventeen years before his death in 2004. Follow the Beyond Belief series here.

Comments (2)

  • Well done, Shelley. Edmund would have smiled. Perhaps he is. K

  • Thank you, Shelley, for this moving portrait of two wonderful artists. Your writing filled me with emotion in remembrance of that time in the 1970s when things were definitely different. The sense of playfulness in the work, and yet, it was thoroughly serious at the same time.

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