THE ART BOOK REVIEW
Siglio Press has published a remarkable catalog of “Jessoterica,” detailed reproductions of some of the more rarely seen or previously inaccessible works of the artist Jess (1923-2004), known in art circles for his elaborate collages (or “paste-ups” as he called them) and in literary circles as the partner/collaborator of the prominent San Francisco poet Robert Duncan.
The paste-up both is and isn’t collage. The name itself is an echo of William Burroughs’s cut-up technique, and Jess’s paste-ups incorporate scattered fragments of text in a manner not wholly unlike Duncan’s approach to the page as compositional field, pushing the resulting image closer to the realm of the visual poem. Although Jess’s love of Victorian imagery inevitably puts the viewer in mind of classic Max Ernst collage works like La femme 100 têtes (1929) and Une semaine de bonté (1934), his dissociation from the term “collage” and its attendant history together with his claim to have learned his techniques from scrapbooking with a great Aunt as a young boy would seem to make him something of a student of that alternative history of what Miriam Schapiro has called “femmage”—the domestic practice of piecing it all back together again.
This publication features the complete set of “cases” of Jess’s altered comic strip “Tricky Cad”—a fabulous cut-and-paste corruption of Dick Tracy. Jess occasionally gets named as an early pioneer of Pop Art on account of this work from the 1950s, but he is an awkward candidate for that role, never really cool enough to be Pop, his love of pop culture notwithstanding. For the more one explores the myth-mad world Jess created—a world in which Castor and Pollux meet Barbra Streisand and Krazy Kat—the more evident Jess’s incapacity for cool detachment becomes—the time of the paste-up is mythic time, and the field is always enchanted. Jess confesses: “I’m afraid I’m too romantic, and perhaps worse yet, sentimental.” In “Tricky Cad,” the moralistic crime-doesn’t-pay logic of the police procedural is reconfigured to reveal the absurd illogic behind law and order’s claims to truth. Jess, lifelong reader of Finnegans Wake, makes a nocturnal text out of the all-American comic strip, in which the field of forensic science, with its lie detectors and eye witnesses, now turns on a garbled, drunken positivism: “THAT TOOTH WAS A TOOTH I-TOOK—WHO TOOK THE TOOTH IS A DISCOVERY—YES, THE ATTIC DOOR’S CLOSED—”
This book contains special prizes: On page 57, a maroon envelope encases a full facsimile copy of Jess’s 20 page staple-bound offset booklet O!, originally published in 1960 on Jerome Rothenberg’s Hawk’s Well Press. Pasting-up Victorian illustrations—a girl swallows an orange seed and worries that an orange tree will grow inside her—with a scattering of quotations from the canon of English poetry, O! creates an oblique parable about creative production and the conjuring force of poetic apostrophe. The other prize I should mention is that the dust jacket of the book folds out into a lovely 19”x25” poster.
Many of the paste-ups, preoccupied as they are with Greek myth and Victoriana, are more or less legibly queer. However, I had never before seen any Jess images as flagrantly homoerotic as some of the work reproduced in this volume—work like the 1953 paste-up series When a Young Lad Dreams of Manhood which presents orgiastic clusters of beautiful male bodies, sliced out of fitness magazines and pasted into sexual embrace. Here it may be appropriate to remember Jess’s partner Duncan as the author of the 1944 essay “The Homosexual in Society,” an unprecedented and frank avowal now viewed as a classic Ur-text of pre-Stonewall gay liberation. These seldom reproduced works by Jess are brave and defiant productions, perhaps not his “mature” works but so much the better for the dreaming young lads of the world. Although O! Tricky Cad does not attempt to be a definitive catalog of all of Jess’s work, and does not even feature notable works like the iconic Narkissos, it succeeds quite impressively in presenting the odds and ends of an artist who made an art of odds and ends.