Few artists have a more interesting biographical turns than the artist who goes by the name of Jess: Before he became a painter, he was working on the Manhattan Project. The works of Jess here center on his Narkissos pining board, a large-scale collage based on the myth of Narcissus. One of Jess's most ambitious undertakings, it began in 1959 with a small pencil study for a painting that evolved into two large-scale mixed-media works. The example presented here combines the Narcissus figure with other pasted-up fragments, as well as found sources of the myth and its many iterations in literature, art, and popular culture. Displayed alongside the pining board are related paste-ups and paintings, notably from Jess's ‘Translation’ and ‘Salvages’ series. The ‘Salvages’ are made by painting over found and thrift store paintings. The ‘Translation’ works take black-and-white scientific illustrations from his enormous archive of images which he ‘translates’ into color, in a thickly painted version, often inscribed with words. These two bodies of work, both grounded in myth, literature, and science, took decades to complete and are extremely rare – most are now in museum collections.
Jess (born 1923 under the name Burgess Collins in Long Beach, California) initially studied chemistry at the California Institute of Technology and spent three years in the army at the Atomic Energy Laboratory. He soon became disillusioned with science, however, after having a nightmare about the world destroying itself, and made a radical turn to art. Subsequently, he studied painting at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute). His teachers included some of the most influential West Coast painters of the period, including David Park, Elmer Bischoff, and Clyfford Still. During this time, Jess met poet Robert Duncan, who would become his lifelong partner and frequent collaborator. They were an influential force in the San Francisco artistic community, who brought together painters and poets and organized exhibitions and readings. Jess died in 2004 in San Francisco.