by Mark Van Proyen
When we ask the question, “will the real Jess stand up?” anywhere from six to ten artistic personae might rise to their posthumous feet. This response is born out by Secret Compartments, an exhibition consisting of 48 works in a wide variety of media, a large majority of which are from the early years of his long and complex career. That career has been all too conveniently pigeonholed into the California collage and assemblage movement, as Jess was one of its earliest pioneers. Certainly, he deserves that accolade, but as this exhibition demonstrates, there is much more to Jess than such blinkered hindsight would allow, especially when we focus on the work that he did prior to 1970.
Jess was born Jess Collins in 1923, but dropped his surname in the late 1940s as a way of distancing himself from his politically conservative family. By that time he had also abandoned the career that he had trained for, that being a research scientist for General Electric at the Hanford Washington nuclear facility. He eventually landed at the California School of Fine Arts in 1949, immediately soaking up the prevailing influences of that heady moment. Clyfford Still gets most of the recognition for catalyzing the spirit of that time, but other artist-teachers such as David Park, Edward Corbett, Jean Varda and Clay Spohn also exerted their fair share of influence. One of the earliest works in Secret Compartments gives the exhibition its namesake, and conjures Corbett’s moody soft-edge abstractions, vaguely coalescing around the configuration of a distorted face. Another from 1951 titled On Corbett’s Dismissal also gives homage to the artist, commemorating the moment when a change in the school’s administration forced him off its faculty.
Other works from this era show the influence of David Park, but in Jess’ hands, color becomes lighter and less muddy, as seen in a large painting called A Wish In The Form of Landscape (1954), and a charming Untitled (and undated) work featuring a portrait head set in profile against a sparse background. Jess referred to some of these early works as “romantic,” and in this realm A Duino Icarus (1959), a small jewel of a painting, is the best example. In keeping with the ancient myth, it shows the back view of a figure with feathers falling away from his wings, even as he flies toward a sumptuous sun on the other side of the composition. The most explicitly homoerotic work in the exhibition, Apollon- Hyakinthos (1962), shows two nude men — one considerably younger than the other — reaching toward each other. More than any other work in the exhibition, it commemorates the longstanding bond between Jess and poet Robert Duncan, and the almost reclusive life that they shared in the legendary Ghost House located near San Francisco’s Delores Park. It is also worth remembering that Jess and Duncan (along with Harry Jacobus) founded and ran the King Ubu Gallery in San Francisco from 1952 to the end of 1953, after which time it became the Six Gallery under different management, with all of the legendary antics that ensued.
Jess has also given us sub-categorical names for all of his other endeavors. These include
Paste-ups, his collage works; Translations, an extensive series of photo-based paintings rendered in flat, exceedingly thick paint; and Salvages, earlier paintings that were subsequently treated as found objects inviting further additions of paint and/or collage material. Many of the latter were thrift store paintings that were “improved,” disrupted or otherwise amended. Throughout the years, Jess simultaneously created works in all of these subcategories, frustrating the search for a developmental chronology. Another sub-category brought to the fore by the exhibition is the artist’s conventional illustrations for books written by Duncan and other poets. One is a simple line drawing titled Five Poems by Denise Levertov (1956), employing the same serpentine line seen in some of the romantic paintings. Another is a combined ink drawing and collage cover for Duncan’s 1960 book The Opening of the Field. It wasn’t too long ago that such “commercial” projects would be omitted from a presumably serious survey of the work of a serious artist, but that prejudice seems to be waning, for better or for ill. In the case of Jess, it’s all to the good because it underscores the creative symbiosis that he and Duncan sustained for almost four decades, something that is often remarked upon but rarely supported by explicit visual evidence. The only lingering issue is the extent to which Duncan absorbed the influences of Surrealist poetry during his years at Black Mountain College, which he briefly attended as a student in 1938 and later taught at in 1956. I have read nothing to suggest that this might be so, but, if we look at the abrupt changes registered in Jess’s work after the time he met Duncan (1950), and if we think back to how those influences were abundantly available at Black Mountain during those years, we are left to wonder.
Certainly, the Surrealists’ call for a celebration of the marvelous can be seen echoing Jess’ Translations, of which there are only a few examples in this exhibition. A small work, In Praise of Sir Edward: Translation #7 (1965), is an outstanding example. It shows a naked child riding a large cat underneath five lines of poetic script. The application of thick, creamy oil paint in pastel color, which looks a bit like the fanciful decoration of a birthday cake, conceals the paint-by-numbers construction of a strange and innocent childhood memory. Two other ink-on-paper works, respectively titled Study for Every Night and Study and The Truth Shall Be Thy Warrant, (both 1975) also shed light on the Translation series, and how they served as preparatory works for other paintings in museum collections. Both feature figures and other motifs taken from ancient Egyptian mythology, and tell us something about Jess’ specific and layered approach to painting the translations, which involved a strategic re-calibration of the factors by which images operate, namely, visuality and tactility.
Xrysxrossanthemums (1978), a collage applied to a jigsaw-puzzle image of a bowl of flowers, can be seen as representing the Salvages series. During 1993, the final year his life, Jess was still working on small Salvages based on post cards. One of them, A Daydream of Fortune, elaborates on a postcard reproduction of a work by Vincent Van Gogh. There is also a charming three-dimensional assemblage from 1963 titled Poet’s Coffeepot, which has a vintage coffeepot perched atop a plant holder, a small branch of an artificial banzai tree reaching skyward from its spout.
This returns us to Jess’ Paste-ups, many examples of which are included in this exhibition. The best, Cake Walk Princess (1954), shows a Frankensteinian female figure made from a cascade of magazine picture fragments. At almost 40 inches tall, it is one of the larger works in the exhibition as well as the largest of the Paste-ups. It is a great summary of his varied interests, in particular his proclivity for pushing sentimentality into the realm of the lurid, and for transforming perfervid Victorian excess into something monstrous. There is also a vintage valise containing 41 distinct collages from 1955 titled Didactic Nickelodeon, which, if nothing else shows how prolific Jess was at that time. An untitled work from 1953 shows him taking Hollywood glamour to task, while another from the same year makes sport of Winnie-the-Pooh cartoon figures—almost a full decade prior to Andy Warhol’s first Nancy paintings. After
Duncan died in 1988, Jess memorialized his long-time partner in a small circular collage from 1989, showing the poet at the center of a swirl of images that includes other poets such as Charles Baudelaire and William Shakespeare.
Jess’s artistic adventure was perfectly timed, reaching back to pre-War European Symbolism and Surrealism while also registering the fact that, after World War II, television-driven American popular culture had far outstripped the wildest imaginings of those who followed Andre Breton in the race for the Uncanny and the Marvelous. Even though the recirculation of Surrealist cliché has been a staple in the global art world for well over half a century, we need to remember that, along with the work of Marcel Duchamp, Joseph Cornell, Robert Rauschenberg and Romare Beardon, Jess’ Paste-ups were among the initial works that would form pivotal bridges between old-school Surrealism and the many subsequent artistic reflections on the then-new and soon to be pervasive surrealities of the post-war American mediascape. More than a few such works are included in this exhibition.
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Jess: “Secret Compartments” @ Anglim Gilbert through April 20, 2019.
About the Author:
Mark Van Proyen’s visual work and written commentaries focus on satirizing the tragic consequences of blind faith placed in economies of narcissistic reward. Since 2003, he has been a corresponding editor for Art in America. His recent publications include: Facing Innocence: The Art of Gottfried Helnwein (2011) and Cirian Logic and the Painting of Preconstruction (2010). To learn more about Mark Van Proyen, read Alex Mak's December 9, 2014 interview, published on Broke Ass Stuart's Goddamn Website.