"AA Bronson's School for Young Shamans"

An artist-healer communes with the artists he's influenced.

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<strong>Rating: </strong>5/5

AA Bronson, Self-Portrait, August 2 2007

Courtesy Of The Artist And John Connelly Presents

One of the central tenets of Buddhism is that when someone dies, his or her aggregate parts—physical, emotional, mental—reconfigure to form another being. Over the course of three decades, AA Bronson, 61, has dealt repeatedly with dissolution, in terms of both personal loss and of career. His responses to these changes constitute a large part of his art-making process, which is based on his continuous self-reinvention. At John Connelly, he presents his own pieces alongside those of peers and younger artists (the show includes work from the past 40 years) whose own ideas have been influenced by this veteran performance artist and self-described “healer.” Still, “School for Young Shamans” is very much a solo outing that can be read as both a passing of the torch and a renewal of Bronson’s oeuvre.

Intergenerational shows, particularly those addressing subcultures (in this case, gay life) can seem like a stilted attempt to preserve the past, formulating aesthetic genealogies in a subtle form of embalming. However, the artist manages to avoid such pitfalls. By assembling the work, if only nominally, as a “school,” and by collaborating with the other participants—on performances during the opening and on static pieces in the exhibit—he generously sets the table for a conversation among artists without having to draw strenuous parallels.

Starting in 1969, Bronson (born Michael Tims in Vancouver) worked and lived with partners Jorge Zontal and Felix Partz as General Idea. This Canadian Conceptualist group subverted popular culture through artist-initiated performances and temporary public-art projects, as well as distributed media such as postcards, posters, wallpaper and balloons. Starting in the ’80s, Bronson began to lose many of his friends to AIDS—both Partz and Zontal passed away due to AIDS-related causes in 1994. After their deaths, Bronson began training in various spiritual and healing disciplines, including Yamantaka, a tantric path that focuses on transcending accepted definitions of death. He also opened a tantric massage practice in New York City. Speaking of this period, Bronson, in a 2003 interview, told BUTT magazine, “I found myself on a path that had more to do with living than dying.”


Michael Dudeck, Fish Dance II (Recalibrated) for Joshua from Moses

Courtesy Of The Artist And John Connelly Presents

While much of the work here takes, tangentially or directly, gay-male sexuality as subject matter, its predominant thread is spirituality. Bronson and his companions all draw strong connections among the ecstatic states of sexual activity, religion and art-making. With Terence Koh, formerly asianpunkboy, Bronson has created The painter looks through to the other side of the hole/In search of the White Knave, 2004/2007, a life-size reproduction of two toilet stalls connected by a glory hole that invokes the peephole in Duchamp’s Etant Donné. One stall (Bronson’s half of the collaboration) is entirely white while the other (Koh’s half) is plastered wall to wall with black-and-white photocopied cutouts of gay porn. A look through the hole from the white side yields a glut of images, while a look from the collaged side has the opposite effect. From either side, the piece seems to invite the viewer to enter the unknown in order to make discoveries.

The work of the younger artists is grouped together in a back-room installation; taken together, it creates a kind of shrine to the search for identity and enlightenment. Christophe Chemin’s video, The Gold Room, features a naked male jumping up and down in different rooms of an apartment; occasional close-ups of his feet in mid-air give the impression that he’s levitating. Naufus Ramirez-Figueroa’s video, Masturbating in the Fatherland, intercuts scenes of the artist inserting a carrot in his ass with images of his father, a professional musician, singing and playing guitar. The text in Peter Brandt’s Needed-Erase-Him, overlaid on a photo of a man standing nude with his head covered by a scarf, excoriates and pities masculinity as a societal construct. Brandt here seems to be dealing with the paradoxes of wanting to have power and rebelling against it, too.

Bronson’s own efforts appear fresh in this context, especially the images from his striking “Evidence of Body-Binding” series, and the wall-size color photo, greeting visitors as they enter, of his partner Mark holding daughter Anna, taken in 2001 right after her premature birth. Whatever else “School for Young Shamans” may be about, it points the way to a renewal of life and art.

John Connelly Presents, through Feb 16

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