Jess at The Whitney Museum of American Art

Jess_1977a.jpgJess, Arkadia’s Last Resort; or, Fete Champetre Up Mnemosyne Creek (1976), mixed-media; courtesy The Whitney Museum of American Art

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The California-based artist known as Jess has been called one of the best-kept secrets in the art world. While he doesn’t have the name recognition of an Andy Warhol, Jess is not unknown in art circles. His work can be found in the collections of major museums, and he has his eloquent supporters, among them the poet John Ashbery. Nevertheless, visitors to the artist’s retrospective at the Whitney will find much about the exhibition that is secretive. Indeed, the work—an amalgam of Dada and Surrealism beholden to neither—is so obsessive and private that comparisons to the more bizarre permutations of folk art are not inappropriate.

Born Burgess Collins in 1923, Jess became an artist after a dream convinced him to abandon a career as a chemist. In 1949 he enrolled in the California School of Fine Arts, where he studied with Clyfford Still and David Park. While Jess shares Still’s visionary tendencies and Park’s obsession with physical surfaces, his oeuvre—his collages and, in particular, his series of paintings called Translations—has little precedent in twentieth-century art.

The collages—or, as Jess prefers them to be called, “paste-ups”—are made up of innumerable images culled from a variety of sources: anatomical diagrams, pin-ups, reproductions of famous paintings, and jigsaw-puzzle pieces give only an indication of what the paste-ups contain. By their very inclusiveness, they suggest a philosophical summation of cosmic proportions. As art, however, they are cluttered. It is pointless to discuss the work in terms of composition because there is none to speak of: there are just a lot of pictures stuck together. One of the pleasures of collage is the friction generated by disparate materials being joined. But how much pictorial tension can be mustered when a surfeit of imagery cancels itself out?

Jess’s best collages keep it simple. Tricky Cad, Case 1 (1954), a cut-and-paste takeoff on the comic strip “Dick Tracy,” is mildly diverting, capturing the nonsensical jolt that art students love about Dada. The evocative Game’s Up (1981)—a jigsaw-puzzle landscape populated by roving dogs, flying headlights, and a boy playing checkers—is Jess’s masterpiece. Here the fragments of different puzzles cohere through a unified space, providing a stable backdrop for Jess’s fantastic juxtapositions.

The Translations, oil-on-canvas versions of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century photographs and engravings, are Jess’s attempts at (in the artist’s own words) “resurrecting images.” Painted in a style not unlike that of paint-by-numbers sets, they are carefully delineated with hard, bright colors on top of gratuitously lumpy grounds. Each of the images is related to a literary text, a wall label of which accompanies the piece. The labels are provided, one supposes, in order to make the work accessible. (On the afternoon I visited the Whitney, viewers spent more time reading the labels than looking at the art.) But obscurantist illustration (which is, ultimately, what the Translations are) isn’t accessible, nor is it meant to be. Fetishes aren’t meant to be accessible, either.

There can be no doubting the sincerity of Jess’s vision. Compare his Translations to the compendiums of ersatz kitsch seen regularly in SoHo and one can glean the difference between an original and a horde of dilettantes. Yet, as singular as Jess’s achievement is, it is also a narrow one. Viewers leaving A Grand Collage will be convinced of the work’s sincerity. But only those who mistake hermeticism for profundity will find it compelling as art.

© 1994 Mario Naves

Originally published in the December 1994 edition of The New Criterion.

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