George Herms and Bruce Conner are often lumped together in the art world because of their association in the late 1950s and early ’60s in the Rat Bastard Protection Association, as well as their shared interest in assemblage. Indeed, Herms and Conner are in concurrent exhibitions through March 31, 2012, at Gallery Paule Anglim. But Conner, who gave up assemblage in the mid-1960s, always struck me as more of a manipulator of the objects he found, whereas Herms, to this day, seems completely comfortable in the skins of the things he finds.
Which makes this pairing of Herms and Conner, who died in 2008, so interesting. Despite the gaping differences in media and content (Herms remains fond of weathered materials, while Conner’s pieces at Anglim are dominated by a wall of ink-jet prints of the San Francisco punk scene at Mabuhay Gardens, circa 1978), the objects share a documentary quality. For the most part, Herms lets the things he finds do the talking for him — the bulk of their wheezy, hoarse mutterings concern the mysteries of language, love and rust. Conner’s pictures and collages are noisier time capsules, even when intended as somber memorials.
Me and Mrs. Jones, George Herms, 2011.
Highlights of the small collection of Herms pieces on view include Me and Mrs. Jones, which takes its name not from the Billy Paul soul hit of 1972 but a poem about the limits of language by Duncan McNaughton. Inspired by the poet, Herms has corralled a jumble of faded red, blue and green wooden letters (and a few numbers) within the confines of a shallow wooden box. A rusted canister of what we assume was once bug spray is wired to the jumble, as are the letters and a deformed compact disc, which plays the role of token shiny thing amid the arrested decay.
Pink Tea Kettle, George Herms, 2006-2011.
Even if we did not know of the connection between Herms’s piece and McNaughton’s poem, the symbolism of letters constrained in a box is straightforward, allowing the piece to speak for itself without mediation from, well, people like me. Simpler still is Pink Tea Kettle, whose centerpiece is an enameled teapot, its once-flawless exterior pinged and dinged in places to expose the rusty steel below. Here there may be no more than meets the eye, making further conjectures about the purpose of the metal post the pot is perched on, let alone its rusty quarter-circle halo, a good deal less relevant than the ordinary joy of the composition itself. As with many Herms sculptures, this one is what it is, an amalgamation of minor irritations reassembled into a string of pearls.
Biafra, August 13, 1978, Bruce Conner, 1978.
The documentary aspect of Conner’s work is much more traditional and obvious. We see Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys, both on stage and laid out like a discarded crucifix on the floor; the smashed-in drywall of the Mabuhay Gardens’ sorry excuse for a dressing room; Fritz Fox of the Mutants amid the club’s smoky, beer-bottle squalor, giving his best tough-guy face for a photographer. Conner was drawn to all this, connecting the dots between the spirit that burned at the end of the Beat era and the inferno that characterized the birth of the punk scene. Conner’s gift, among many others, was to realize there were dots to connect.
During the 1990s, when Ricky Williams and then Frankie Fix of the band Crime died, Conner created movingly creepy memorials to both. Ostensibly, those pieces have the closest connection to the Herms assemblages nearby, but I prefer the more poetic link between Herms’s castoffs and Conner’s pictures of punks.
Works by George Herms and Bruce Conner are on view through March 31, 2012, at Gallery Paule Anglim in San Francisco. For more information visit gallerypauleanglim.com.