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.
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