The Bay Area of the 1950s was the West Coast epicenter for poetry, jazz and art. Part of the excitement came from the close connections between those three art forms. This was especially true in collage, art composed from fragments of photographs, advertisements or newspaper articles, elements brought together in unexpected ways to tell new stories.
An exemplar was the artist Jess Collins (1923-2004) who went by the solo moniker of Jess. An exhibition at Kohn Gallery, Jess— Secret Compartments, includes a number of such collage pieces along with an overview of his paintings, which are less well-known. Organized by Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York, the show not only features some enticing examples, it also reveals the distance the artist traveled in his artistic and personal lives.
The paintings from the early 1950s were influenced by his studies at the California School of Fine Arts (now San Francisco Art Institute) with painters David Park, Elmer Bischoff and Clyfford Still. That was also the time that he met poet Robert Duncan and began their lifelong partnership. Over the next few decades, until Duncan’s death in 1988, they become one of the most influential couples in the artistic life of the community, for their talents as well as their status as an openly gay couple.
Jess, Prelude, 1955, Oil on canvas, 32 x 27 inches, Frame: 33 1/4 x 28 1/4 inches. Image courtesy Kohn Gallery.
(Evidence of their creative reciprocity was was explored nicely in Michael Duncan’s 2014 exhibition An Opening of the Field, at the now closed Pasadena Museum of California Art.) Most of the collages are from the 1950s and rococo in their complexity, not only visually but also in their literary references.
Jess, Untitled (Girl with Geese), 1955, Collage, 13 3/4 x 9 3/4 inches. Image courtesy Kohn Gallery.
As a poet arranges words in unexpected ways to extract new meaning, so would Jess with his pasted together pictures. In fact, he titled them “Paste-Ups.” A collage titled Cake Walk Princess (1954), layers black and photographs in a way that waterfalls look like the fabric of a long skirt, layer cakes become the floor and floral snippets are transformed into the upper torso, head and hat of a grand young lady. Using an X-Acto knife and working on such pieces for long periods of time, Jess devoted his attention to even the tiniest details.
Jess, Cake Walk Princess, 1954, Collage, 37 x 23 1/2 inches, Frame: 46 1/2 x 32 1/2 inches. Image courtesy Kohn Gallery.
The exhibition includes the recently rediscovered Didactic Nickelodeon (1955), a black suitcase containing 41 of his collages that are also presented in an ongoing film by Lawrence Jordan. Jess chose the audio, which includes recitations by James Joyce.
Jess, Didactic Nickelodeon, 1955, 41 works on paper, ink and printed paper collages, Suitcase: 22 x 16 1/2 x 6 inches, Collages: 20 1/2 x 15 3/4 inches/each, Stand 14 x 8 inches. Photo by Karl Puchlik, Courtesy Kohn Gallery.
The nickelodeon, a machine that showed short moving pictures for the price of a nickle, was long passe by 1955. Jess used the reference as he did in many other ways to illustrate his own personal conflict between the romanticized past and the technologically challenging present. He was doubtless influenced by his early studies at Cal Tech and his three years in the army working at the Atomic Energy Laboratory and on the Manhattan Project.
Jess, A Wish in the Form of a Landscape, 1954, Oil on canvas, 40 x 52 inches, Frame: 50 x 62 inches. Image courtesy Kohn Gallery.
It was his disillusionment with science that led him to become an artist and he found solace in his art, not only collage but painting. His symbolist-tinged landscapes in muted tones are consistently devoid of sharp angles. Soft-focused, pleasant and romantic, they live up titles such as A Wish in the Form of a Landscape (1954). More daring for their times, the show includes a number of paintings and other works of homoerotic subjects, explored through the use of Greek mythology. There aren’t many opportunities to enjoy the art of this maverick from the conventional. Jess — Secret Compartments is a worthy journey into his private and idiosyncratic world. It is on view through Sept. 7