Jess: Secret Compartments
By Shana Nys Dambrot
A lifetime-spanning survey of works by Jess (1923-2004) is bound to be a bit meta — because the work that Jess produced across his long career was itself always already a survey of his own life and times. From his earliest paintings in the 1950s to his latter-day collage-based compositions made well into the 1990s, with drawing, sculpture, and video collaborations along the way, Jess was at every moment consciously assembling an archive of his own obsessions. These included but were not limited to literature (especially James Joyce), history, science, mythology, flowers, cats, magazines, tag sales, and interior design. His voracious visual appetite ranged from dreamy homoerotic fantasy to pragmatic current-events clippings, and above all he loved a good story.
As a student of painting in the mid-1950s, he came from a Bay Area scene that was vigorously engaged in the scrimashes between abstraction and figurative convention. As such, Jess’ paintings from this period reflect a deep period of conscious engagement with its own form. His reimagined art historical tropes from allegorical domestic spheres (floral still lifes, cats, charmingly set tables) as well as a homoerotic take on the nude-in-the-landscape idiom both channeled and subverted their own canon.
Jess’ injections of adventure and personality into this framework manifested as quirky perspective, painterly texture, an eccentric and emotional palette, and the substitution of the nude male form in place of the usual female. This engagement with a reimagined stance for a less binary male gaze continued to evolve throughout his career, informing not only his early painting practice but also his expanding collage work for which he came to be best known. Though his personal and art-historical coming-out resulted in his being embraced as an LGBT pioneer and culture hero, this was only one aspect of his particular and remarkable merger of the past and the future, convention and progress.
The author James Joyce was an aesthetic touchstone for Jess along the way, being not only a favorite writer but an actual source of content and physical materials for his collages (which often included sliced up book pages) and as the audio for a video piece. It’s easy to make the leap, to see the analogy, between what Jess did and Joyce’s hyper-vernacular literature which placed the details of ordinary life in something of a blender, and generated from their remix universal bricolage, a stream of emblematic cultural consciousness, encouraging of self-reflection as a touchstone for a more general philosophy.
From the young artist’s romantic period of introspection and identity-building, soon enough came a mature phase in which this omnivorous gaze was turned outward. To his painting and drawing practice which continued, beginning in the late 1950s, Jess added forays into collage works, called “Paste-Ups” in reference to the intuitive and exceptionally analog nature of their production. Visualize thousands of slices of all kinds of pictures culled from his ever-expanding accumulation of source materials, a case of x-acto knives, and all the tape and glue ever — like scrapbooking on steroids.
A single collage by Jess could have from dozens to over 100 element components. But while the tumult of our visual culture, and the juxtaposition suggested by its optical assortment, is one central aspect which these works explore, Jess never lost the essential impulse of the storytellers he admired. He also used his constructed set-ups to create meta-narratives that built sweeping macro-stories of society by extrapolating and recontextualizing small-bore individual experiences. Photojournalism, reproductions from art history, anthropology, fashion, politics, religion, environment, and industry all make contributions to the global conversation Jess never tired of chronicling. As such, this exhibition at Kohn Gallery does double duty, as not only a survey of Jess’ art, but of his place in our shared history.
Shana Nys Dambrot is an art critic, curator, and author based in Downtown LA. She is the Arts Editor for the LA Weekly and a contributor to numerous publications, including Riot Material. She sits on the Boards of Art Share-LA and the Venice Institute of Contemporary Art, and the Advisory Council of Building Bridges Art Exchange.