Bay Area artist Jean Conner gets the star treatment she deserves at the San Jose Museum of Art this spring and summer.
Jean Conner, “Peaceable Kingdom” (1981, cut and pasted printed paper), 16 inches by 16 1/2 inches
Jean Conner is having a big year. This month, the San Francisco-based artist, who turns 89 on May 15, is opening her first-ever museum solo exhibition at the San Jose Museum of Art (SJMA).
Jean Conner: Collage will run from early May through late September, spotlighting 78 of the artist’s paper collages from the 1950s to the present day. Conner, admittedly, was both “thrilled and surprised” by the news of the exhibition. “People would come to our house to see my husband’s work and not look at or even see my work hanging right there with his,” she says, referencing her late husband, the celebrated postwar artist Bruce Conner. “Professionally, it’s nice to have my work noticed.”
“Blue Pyramid” (1970, cut and pasted printed paper), 10 3/4 inches by 93/8 inches
Unlike the surrealist collage artworks of the early 1900s, Conner’s fantastical, imaginative compositions stem from an earlier 19th century Victorian style. Most of the pieces were composed of cut-outs from large-format color magazines, like Life, Ladies’ Home Journal and Good Housekeeping, along with layers of ephemera, including postcards, pressed plants and fragments of lace.
“Mirage” (1994, cut and pasted printed paper), 15 1/8 inches by 7 5/8 inches
“Jean’s collages are slick,” says Rory Padeken, curator and manager of publications at SJMA. “You can’t really tell when one image begins and another ends, and I think that really sets her apart from contemporary artists working in collage today.”
“Diver” (1982, cut and pasted printed paper), 12 1 ⁄4 inches by 9 3⁄8 inches.
The exhibit, which includes rarely seen materials from The Conner Family Trust, along with pieces from public museums and private collections, explores wide-ranging themes, from women and animals to cinema and spirituality.
One collage, a 1980 work entitled “Feathers,” encapsulates the art form’s hypnotic effects. “It’s clearly of peacock feathers,” Padeken says. “But then, as you look closer, there might be hummingbird wings and the face of the peacock is covered with another bird’s beak, so it’s something you recognize, but then also totally strange at the same time.”
Though Conner confesses collaging is mostly a quick process, often, finding the perfect piece requires patience. “There are some collages [where] I’ve just had a background and added one piece to it—so simple and so right,” she says. “Others took a long time to find and put together. In one, I remember it was a piece of blue sky. It was a long time before I found just the right shade of blue to complete the collage.”
“Too Many Cooks” (1970, cut and pasted printed paper), 10 inches by 9 3/8 inches
While the exhibit is layered with clever critiques and subtle symbolism, for Padeken, the artist’s dry humor is the most pleasant surprise. “There’s a whole lot of humor in Jean’s work,” he says. “It’s not funny ha-ha you’re going to be laughing, but you’re definitely going to be smirking.”
May 6-Sept. 25, 110 S. Market St., San Jose, 408.271.6840
Photography by: PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE CONNER FAMILY TRUST AND HOSFELT GALLERY, SAN FRANCISCO