“Blue Pyramid,” a 1970 paper collage by San Francisco-based artist Jean Conner, whose work is the subject of solo shows at two Bay Area museums.
“Aztec Warrior,” a 1990 painting by San Francisco-based artist Jean Conner featured at the Marin Museum of Contemporary Art.
“Too Many Cooks,” a 1970 collage by San Francisco-based artist Jean Conner featured at the San Jose Museum of Art.
“Red Gladiolas,” a 1968 painting by San Francisco-based artist Jean Conner.
“Blue Pyramid,” a 1970 paper collage by San Francisco-based artist Jean Conner, whose work is the subject of solo shows at two Bay Area museums.
“Aztec Warrior,” a 1990 painting by San Francisco-based artist Jean Conner featured at the Marin Museum of Contemporary Art.
“Too Many Cooks,” a 1970 collage by San Francisco-based artist Jean Conner featured at the San Jose Museum of Art.
“Red Gladiolas,” a 1968 painting by San Francisco-based artist Jean Conner.
Though the painter and collage artist Jean Conner worked alongside such seminal Bay Area artists as her husband Bruce, Joan Brown and Jay DeFeo, she’s seldom mentioned in the same breath. That’s changing. The concurrent exhibitions, “Jean Conner: Collage” at the San Jose Museum of Art and “Jean Conner: Inner Garden” at the Marin Museum of Contemporary Art, mark the first solo museum outings in the artist’s six-decade career, promising much-belated recognition.
“Collage” hosts 78 works from 1957-2021, organized across five thematic sections, made from photographs clipped from midcentury, large-format magazines like Life and Ladies’ Home Journal. The uniform, retro feel of all the source material makes each collage feel contiguous, even as Conner combines disparate elements to create surreal images.
Collage allows artists to create photographic fictions — a paradox Conner clearly delights in and excels at. Some of Conner’s collages are densely layered, others sparse, but all possess the joyful quality of an artist poking at the boundaries of her medium. Conner does so best in a controlled format, combining a few elements exactingly, and the pieces that suffer do so when they become overwhelmed by the inclusion of too many elements.
“Too Many Cooks,” 1970, for example, is a playful scene in which a group of chefs sample the contents of a pot. Immediately out of place, yet expertly inserted, is a bat flitting between a ladle and one of the chef’s lips. Extended viewing offers other surprises: a giant roast turkey wearing a pair of chef’s hats on its legs; a feminine arm sneaking over the edge of the edge of the chopping block.
“Blue Pyramid,” 1970, is another standout, though the titular landmark is hardly the center of attention. This piece, reminiscent of a vintage movie poster, exemplifies Conner’s eye for composition. Two photographs of women — a large, floating head in the background and a reclining figure in the foreground — intertwine, the folds of their garments making it difficult to distinguish where one begins and the other ends.
The motif of the floating head is recurrent across many of the pieces in “Inner Garden,” which boasts a handful of collage and mixed-media pieces, but mainly focuses on Conner’s paintings and drawings. Save for a few graphite floral studies, these works are mostly expressionistic renderings of angelic figures and flowers. The softness of the paintings contrasts with the purely representational collage work in Conner’s oeuvre, emphasizing her versatility between mediums.
The big, bright watercolor, “Aztec Warrior,” 1990, which verges on total abstraction, conveys more of a feeling than an image of the titular subject, in a deluge of feathery red and orange brush strokes. “Red Gladiolas,” c. 1968, which is more representational, maintains a dreamy haze in its wet depiction of bright red flowers against a dark background, also evoking a mood, this one somber and quiet.
All art displays the artist’s attempt to apprehend the world, employing their chosen medium to filter experiences. The artist also creates worlds of their own. Because photographs tend to represent real life, Conner’s collages have the feeling of reaching into the world and manipulating what’s there to suit her vision.
Conversely, Conner’s paintings allow for viewers to share in her interior experience, illustrating her emotional response to the world around her. It’s Conner’s ability to chart both of these unknown landscapes with confidence that marks her mastery. I would go anywhere with her.
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“Jean Conner: Collage”
Where: San Jose Museum of Art, 110 South Market St., San Jose
When: 4 –9 p.m. Thursday, 11 a.m.–9 p.m. Friday, 11 a.m.–6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Through Sep. 25
Tickets: $10
Contact: (408) 271-6840​, sjmusart.org
“Jean Conner: Inner Garden”
Where: Marin Museum of Contemporary Art, 500 Palm Drive, Novato
When: 11 a.m.–4 p.m. Wednesday to Friday, 11 a.m.–5p.m. Saturday to Sunday. Through Aug. 28
Tickets: $10
Contact: (415) 506-0137, marinmoca.org
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