Los Angeles


Pasadena Museum of California Art (PMCA)

“Got Wallace’s Art Forum [sic] (tore out everything else) and made a delightful Berman pamphlet,” reported Jess (né Burgess Collins in Long Beach, California, in 1923) to his lifelong partner, the poet Robert Duncan, in 1966. As curator Ingrid Schaffner notes in her sharply revisionist catalogue essay, the gesture of the artist, an expert bladesman, cut in at least two ways: “It was a tribute to the success of a friend and fellow Californian with whose work Jess’s was identified” and it was a “tacit act of reproach”—not against Berman, “but against the contemporary art world represented by Artforum’s other sixty-one pages of features, criticism, and advertisements that Jess had discarded. Apparently he didn’t consider the rest of the magazine worth cutting up for collage material.”

Frequently, Jess availed himself of printed matter that operated in a gray scale of graphite and fog as well as in sepia tones borrowed not so much from old photographs but from aged comics and newspapers. The apotheosis of his grisaille investigations remains his Narkissos project, an endeavor in multiple interrelated parts (collages, paintings, a bulletin board), made between 1959 and 1991. It is as difficult to convey its, well, overall awesomeness as its technical complexity; Schaffner settles for calling it “mind-boggling.” Two parts were on view: a too-brief display from the Narkissos Notebook, 1959–90, showing a page of Jess’s penned notes and a photograph of a Hollywood sailor (the entirety of the source material includes everything from Krazy Kat to narcissi cut directly from After Dark, an important “gay” culture monthly that evolved from Ballroom Dance Magazine), and the overwhelming Narkissos: The Last Translation, 1978–1991, a single-panel painting struggled with over decades and rendered in sensuously detailed graphite on primed linen.

If the most visible and/or legible form of the project is the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s Narkissos, 1976–91 (not on view), then the translation here was into a haunting ghost language: the work coheres through anticipation and absence. Its central figure is an outlined lithe beauty holding cells from Krazy Kat in one hand and a kind of wand-cum-back-scratcher (the tip is a hand) in the other, while history swirls and seethes around him. Reskilling the vernacular of paint-by-numbers while remaining a critique thereof, its strangeness and power become all the more trenchant for the way it represents mortality. Despite Jess’s fantastic quest to create “homoerotic romances” and to achieve “censuosity [sic] without pornographic emphasis,” the artist allowed the work to incorporate the changes that attenuated even his famous snail’s pace: Duncan’s kidney failure and death, the massive 1989 Bay Area earthquake—not to mention the seismic shock of AIDS.

Prepossessing examples of Jess’s puzzle-piece works (the ursine discombobulation of Deranged Stereopticon, 1974) and of his magnificent series of paintings, “Translations,” 1959–1975, built up on various supports in reliefs of palimpsestic paint, affirm a literary life, one reflecting on the tensions and rapprochements between language and vision, but Jess’s truest manipulation was of time. With his sphinxes, jungles, Greek orthography, and attuned, randy vantage on Victoriana, Jess’s glue fastens not word to image as much as the present to the past, so as to bear witness to something beyond both. He uses the popular to reveal blossoms rooted in ancient myth. His Dyslectstay, 1991, manages a quiet storm of source materials, from oranges to snakes. Schaffner reminds those who may miss it that Jess’s title is a “‘centaur’ expression,” embodying “dual ways of being read” and instructing us in “the pleasures of corrupted syntax that is the grammar of collage.” The temptation to point out the absence of his centaur corruptions in recent East Coast surveys of collage is increasingly irresistible.

Bruce Hainley