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SAN FRANCISCO — The Bay Area’s countercultural past continues to provide fodder for gallery and major museum exhibitions across the country. These explorations into the region’s artistic history generally fall into one of three categories: evocative solo shows, milieu studies, and wide-ranging surveys. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is taking a fairly novel approach by merging those categories in its new exhibition, titled Mythos, Psyche, Eros: Jess and California.
The show positions Jess — born Burgess Franklin Collins — as the center of a creative nexus, bringing together artworks from his own wide-ranging oeuvre with those by a smattering of well-known and lesser-known creators based in California. Or, as the introductory panel on one of the gallery’s walls describes, “the West Coast’s unusual romantic legacy.”
Efforts to establish this “legacy” are reminiscent of last year’s immersive Way Bay exhibition cycle at the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA), which was designed around the ways in which artworks’ qualities played off of and interrogated one another. Mythos, Psyche, Eros accomplishes that trick by naming three of the show’s four rooms after the title’s antiquity-themed keywords. It’s a little more organized and certainly tighter than Way Bay, but the idea is similar.
The reasons for placing particular artworks, by Jess or otherwise, in each themed room are a bit opaque. The “Psyche” room is dominated by Jess. A technicolor work from his Translation painting series, made between 1959 and 1976, makes an appearance, alongside a small paste-up, but the majority of the works are abstract or amorphous landscapes and still lifes. Seeing so many of these landscapes and still lifes together is nothing short of intoxicating. They’re not only the least investigated part of his oeuvre, but they provide a refreshing counterpoint to the dense pieces in the other rooms.
Thickly layered and enigmatic pieces like “Eluard’s Death” (1960) and “The Despondency at Cirith Ungol” (1961) seem to crumble and recombine with the fluidity of a dream. The shadow figure vamping in the background of “Pandora’s Dawn” (1959) foreshadows the agitating sexuality and doom that radiate from the artist’s paste-ups in the “Eros” room.
The works by other artists aren’t quite as successful. The far wall juxtaposes Jess’s “Vista” (1951), an early abstraction that hints at representation (and introduces the vibrant color combinations that would reappear in the Translations series) with a monochromatic abstraction titled “Untitled #3” (1950) by his beloved teacher, Edward Corbett. Elsewhere are “Wild Flowers” (1962) by Jess’s dear friend Lyn Brockway and a selection of assemblages by his contemporaries, George Herms and Bruce Conner.
Pairing Jess with Corbett, Brockway, Conner, and Herms approaches the kinds of intersections that the show’s title suggests. Yet the works by Jess’s friends and contemporaries feel like digressions from a central narrative. There’s overlap between the assemblages by Conner and Herms, for example, but these have little to do with the works by Jess. The strength of these friendships seems to be the rationale for including them, but that hardly seems like reason enough.
Many of the non-Jess artworks are puzzling. Back in the Eros room, “Untitled (rooms)” by Toba Khedoori and “Decoration for Over-Mantel” by Gottardo Piazzoni certainly share some of the mysticism that overflows in Jess’s work. But the creation of these two works in Los Angeles in 2001 and in Carmel, California in 1926, respectively, makes the alignment of the three artists problematic. Stressing the formal similarities among the three works seems like a facile comparison that ignores the unique geographies and time periods in which they worked.
None of these issues detracts from the intimate view into Jess’s world that his art provides. It’s worth the entrance fee just to see his masterpiece, the massive “Narkissos” alongside “Study for Narkissos” and a pinboard with source material for the final masterpiece.
“Narkissos” was a lifelong pursuit. The project began in 1976 and continued in spurts over a 15-year period. Mythology, sexuality, and the inevitability of death churn within the sources on the pinboard as we see the artist reference everything from honeybees to a collection of skulls to “Reptiles” by M.C. Escher (1943). Seeing “Narkissos” along with the board casts the paste-up in a new light for even the most diehard Jess fan.
Accompanying “Narkissos” are several other marvelous paste-ups. “The Mouse’s Tale” presents male nudes cut out from fitness magazines and arranged into a cowering figure. The juxtaposition of performative masculinity and abject cowardice played on Jess’s fascination with the emotion he described as “joyful-fearful.”
Another unexpected treasure is found in the center of the “Mythos” room. A case contains a cache of illustrations, mostly by Jess alone, but some in collaboration with his longtime lover, the poet Robert Duncan. Most fantastical is The Boobus and the Bunnyduck, a fairytale by the poet Michael McClure, resplendently illustrated in pastels by Jess. Among all the illustrations in the case, but in the pairing with McClure especially, we see an impishness unclouded by the “joyful-fearful” motifs underpinning his more well-known paste-ups, or the wryness and irony woven into his Translations.
While the show doesn’t especially establish, or even outline, the legacy it proclaims, it allows us access to Jess’s world in a way that has rarely, if ever, been accomplished. It’s possible that Jess was such a visionary outlier, so prescient and anachronistic at once, that there is no material benefit in comparing his work to outside influences. If nothing else, Mythos, Psyche, Eros proves that Jess is timeless and incomparable.
Mythos, Psyche, Eros: Jess and California continues at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (151 Third Street, San Francisco, California) through October 14.