Jay DeFeo, 'Untitled,' 1971. (Courtesy of The Jay DeFeo Foundation; Marc Selwyn Fine Art, Los Angeles; Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York; Galerie Frank Elbaz, Paris & Dallas)
For those with a bit of Bay Area art history under their belts, any mention of Jay DeFeo’s name invariably conjures looming visions of The Rose, a painting of such monumental and mythic proportions it’s often misunderstood as the artist’s entire life’s work.
Granted, The Rose is a very big deal, and not just because of the amount of physical space the thing takes up. (Layered with almost 2,000 pounds of paint, the geometric starburst design is nearly 11 feet tall, 8 feet wide and 11 inches deep.) DeFeo spent eight years working on The Rose (1958–1966), building up the surface with oil paint, wooden dowels and mica flakes. To see it in person is to stand in awe.
And yes, The Rose temporarily wrecked DeFeo—physically, emotionally and creatively. But her story—and her art—didn’t stop there.
Undersoul, a new exhibition at the San Jose Museum of Art, co-curated by Lauren Schell Dickens and Kathryn Wade, picks up after The Rose was walled into a conference room at the San Francisco Art Institute (not to be seen again for 26 years, when the Whitney Museum of Art organized its excavation, conservation and exhibition in 1995).
“What do you do with yourself—as an artist, as a person—after an undertaking like The Rose?” the exhibition asks. The answer comes in the form of DeFeo’s previously unseen photographic works.
After a three-year break from art-making, photography was DeFeo’s way back in. And instead of large-scale time-consuming projects, we see her taking photographs of her immediate surroundings—the small porch studio in her Larkspur home, still life arrangements of glassware and vegetables, and eventually, process shots of ongoing paintings and drawings. While DeFeo never exhibited her photographs as artworks during her own lifetime (she died at age 60 in 1989), they were integral to her practice.
The scale of these high-contrast silver gelatin prints—the smallest of which is just over 2-by-4 inches—necessitates a lean-in approach to viewing the exhibition. Nothing in the SJMA’s gallery will overwhelm you physically, but many of the images puzzle. DeFeo plays with light and texture, cropping and camera angles to render ordinary objects strange. (The exhibition's title comes from DeFeo’s friend, poet Michael McClure, who used it to describe the spiritual and aesthetic qualities of everyday things.)
Through DeFeo’s lens, a serving dish holding a head of cauliflower, reflected in two small mirrors, becomes a surrealist meal. Photocopies, likely made semi-illicitly at Mills College, capture bones, drawing compasses and the gummy shapes of kneaded erasers pressed against the glass. In the mixed media on paper piece Three Mile Island No. 2 from her One O’clock Jump series, these “undersoul” tactics render a broken tape dispenser as a giant gray-hued eyeball. She further abstracts the same tape dispense in Blind Spot, a simplified circle on a creamy expanse of paper.
Throughout Undersoul, details speak to the precariousness of DeFeo’s life and work. A close-up photograph of the artist’s dental bridge opens the show; Schell Dickens’ essay posits that DeFeo’s use of oil paint may have made her teeth fall out. The Jewel, a painting she began at the same time as The Rose as a colorful complement to it, lived under a porch for two decades before it reemerged. (DeFeo’s work has a habit of hiding from sight.)
But what also emerges in this small yet focused exhibition is the artist’s incredible facility with her chosen materials. Photography, collage, drawing, painting; all demonstrate her ability to transcend a subject’s inherent form (whether that was a leaf, a shoe tree, broken glass or her own work), unhinge it from reality, and open up another dimension through art.
‘Undersoul: Jay DeFeo’ is on view at the San Jose Museum of Art through July 7, 2019. Details here.