Two Jess Exhibitions Capture the San Francisco Artist's Boundless Energy

Jess, Detail of 'Fig. 4 — Far And Few...: Translation #15,' 1965. (© JESS—The Jess Collins Trust)

Burgess Franklin Collins, better known as Jess, remains one of the more intriguing San Francisco artists to emerge from San Francisco’s post-war avant-garde. Much like his art, Jess was hermetic and slightly anachronistic in his tastes, eschewing prevailing aesthetic trends, and the art world altogether, to pursue a vision all his own.

Even his biography reads like one of the fairy tales he was fond of: giving up a career as a nuclear scientist because he wanted no role in bringing about the apocalypse, Jess enrolled in the California School for the Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute) in 1949 to study painting and rekindle a childhood passion for art. A year later he met and became romantically involved with the poet Robert Duncan, adopting his new mononym. The two moved into a Mission Victorian where they remained life and creative partners for the next three decades, living happily ever after, as it were (Duncan died in 1988, Jess in 2004).

Installation view of 'Secret Compartments' at Anglim Gilbert Gallery.
Installation view of 'Secret Compartments' at Anglim Gilbert Gallery. (Courtesy of Anglim Gilbert Gallery, San Francisco and the Jess Collins Estate)

The continued allure of Jess is attested to by two ongoing exhibitions, Mythos, Psyche, Eros: Jess and California, at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Secret Compartments at Anglim Gilbert Gallery. While the SFMOMA exhibition seeks to connect the dots between Jess and other California artists whose sensibilities and practices overlapped with his, the Anglim Gilbert show fills the gaps in the museum’s presentation, yielding a far more interesting depiction of Jess’ wide-ranging body of work.

Jess preferred methods of making that began with existing images. Whether collaging delicate sprigs of printed matter into fantastic “paste-ups,” copying found images in a paint-by-numbers style for his “Translation” oils, or adding to and altering thrift store-sourced canvases, Jess’ métier was a kind of visual alchemy by which base materials became fantastic.

Whereas Dadaists used collage to critique modern life, and the Surrealists, after them, saw it as a means to open the floodgates of the unconscious, Jess’s approach to cutting and pasting was more self-contained, by turns whimsical and cabalistic. Much like Joseph Cornell and his shadow boxes, Jess’ assemblages, as he generally referred to his work, were indexes of his fascination with the outmoded and esoteric—Victoriana, children’s books, the occult—as much as they were tributes to his inner circle, Duncan especially.

Jess, 'Narkissos,' 1976–91.
Jess, 'Narkissos,' 1976–91. (© JESS—The Jess Collins Trust)

Befitting someone whose favorite book was Finnegans Wake, Jess’s compositions are dense, riddled with literary and historical allusions. But they are also celebrations of surface—be it the gloppy residue of impasto, the delicacy of mass-reproduced engravings, or the sight of a naked man.

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At SFMOMA, the exhibition’s thesis is in its title. Pieces by Jess and other California artists—some contemporary, who have been influenced by the artist, and some who were working contemporaneously to Jess—are thematically grouped in three small gallery spaces on the museum’s second floor, according to whether they speak to “mythos,” “psyche” or “eros.” Though these keywords are certainly rich starting points for thinking about Jess’ work, the show’s execution renders this organizing principal both under-baked and unnecessary to appreciating what’s on view, much of which rarely leaves museum storage.

The cluster of pieces by Jean Conner, George Herms, Wilfired Satty, Shirley Staschen and Gernie von Pribosic Gutmann, on one wall of the “Mythos” room, for example, make for a compellingly outré arrangement on its own, but the accompanying didactic offers little information as to how, and if, these artists intersected with Jess or his work, at all, beyond their shared affinity for the fantastic. (For those who want a deeper dive, Rebecca Solnit’s 1990 book Secret Exhibition: Six California Artists of the Cold War Era is a great place to start, particularly in regards to Jess’s relationship with Herms).

The best realization of the exhibition’s promise is in the “Eros” room, anchored by the monumental Narkissos. Jess started this paste-up of separate graphite and gouache drawings in 1976, working on it nearly until the end of his life. What’s even more exciting is having the chance to study Jess’ magnum opus alongside a seldom-exhibited preparatory mood board, made two decades prior, which lays out the source material for the piece’s basic composition. It is a shame, though, that the two aren’t hung on the same wall.

Colter Jacobsen, 'The Boys’ Book of Magnetism,' 2011.
Colter Jacobsen, 'The Boys’ Book of Magnetism,' 2011. (© Colter Jacobsen; Photo: Don Ross)

Offering a mirror reflection of Narkissos, across time and mediums, is Colter Jacobsen’s The Boys Book of Magnetism, a grouping of Jacobson’s meticulous, photorealistic graphite drawings inspired by antique printed matter and photographs, and found artifacts from the same time period. Jacobsen’s delicate hand and gift for perfect reproduction uncannily resembles Jess’ own careful draftsmanship, while the piece’s oblique depiction of same-sex pairing via vintage imagery recalls Jess’s own tribute to “[an] intense homo-eros” that hangs across the gallery.

Aside from Narkissos, and two larger-scale Translation paintings, much of Jess’ work looks slightly out of place on SFMOMA’s pristine walls. Packed with detail and often modest in size, they beg, instead, to be installed as many of them originally were: in the cramped intimacy of someone’s home. It’s a relief, then, that something of that mood is captured in the wonderfully overfull Secret Compartments.

Installation view of 'Secret Compartments' at Anglim Gilbert Gallery.
Installation view of 'Secret Compartments' at Anglim Gilbert Gallery. (Courtesy of Anglim Gilbert Gallery, San Francisco and the Jess Collins Estate)

In this, Anglim Gilbert’s first exhibition devoted exclusively to Jess in nearly a decade, Secret Compartments offers a greater breadth of Jess’ output than the SFMOMA show, without much overlap between them. The variety of pieces collected here—there are paste-ups and Translation paintings, but also early Romantic oils, some unexpectedly vivid drawings in crayon, and knotty assemblages made of jigsaw puzzles and found objects—demonstrate Jess’ boundless energy for creating new worlds out of the reconfigured detritus of ours.

Collage and appropriation have long since become part of our visual grammar. Just think about how we reflexively use GIFs and memes in online conversation. In this light, Jess’ methods can feel dated, his aesthetic overly precious. However, these two exhibitions work in tandem to help us see the artist’s practice on its own terms—as part of the “grand collage,” to borrow a phrase of Duncan’s, that was the life they co-authored.

It is a mode of living and creating that captures the sense of possibility and providence that have brought many to San Francisco, one that feels as distant from our current moment as the Middle Ages. We are fortunate that Jess left behind such a trove of illuminated manuscripts.

'Mythos, Psyche, Eros: Jess and California' is on view at SFMOMA through Oct. 14, 2019. Details here.

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'Secret Compartments' is on view at San Francisco's Anglim Gilbert Gallery through May 4, 2019. Details here.

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