Thursday, August 30, 2007

Jess's Didactic Nickelodeon

A bike ride downtown with Rick to pay another visit (my third) to the Jess exhibit was the perfect way to shake off the strange nightmare, full of irresolvable disjunctions, I had during my afternoon nap. I spent this visit on a long examination of Jess's Didactic Nickelodeon, Series Two, 'The Guardian Angels' Guidebook,' 1955, a series of thirty-seven smallish collages (there were to be 42, but the series was never completed), each accompanied by a fragment of text, usually of about eight or nine words (the never-completed numbers come at various points in the series, so there are sudden breaks in the textual continuity; in Madison, the order of the last handful was screwed up, possibly because of these gaps).

The text is either directly taken from Sir Charles Sherrington's 1938 work Man on His Nature or is the result of some operation on it or reading of it (as a member of the non-JSTOR rabble, I haven't been able to access the online versions of the work). Sherrington's text is apparently about a connection between the neuroscience of his day and a language of imagination and dreams. The text in the upper or lower margins of the collages is beautiful, and makes me want to investigate further.

The collages are widely varied, the elements shared between them just numerous enough to produce not-fully-rational connections (dolphins, statues, water, heads replaced with globes, eyes, masks). They have in common with one another (and with much of Jess' work) an obsession with impossible scale, the tiny or distant containing the very large or close-up, unattainable perspectives on landscapes, cities where they don't belong, all rendered in cuts so fine that I could almost never see them, even up close. More contemporary images in this series than in much of the work in the exhibit, where Victorian or early 20th-century material predominates.

What I love most about the work itself is the way its two series (text-fragments and collages) affect each other in ways that would be impossible if the text were incorporated into the images, or if the latter were merely an illustration of the former. The images often have something to do with nuclear war and its aftermath, either directly (a street in Japan thoroughly occupied by Allied soldiers and shadowed by giant insects, a Japanese woman cradling an injured child), evocatively (an empty stadium littered with paper, a blinding glow or flash from behind a forest that's somehow inside an airplane), or by more distant analogies (a crowd looking up at an infant falling through the air, which I take as a reference to the "Little Boy" nickname given to the first atomic bomb dropped).

These references, clear as they may seem here, could easily be missed in the context of numberless dream-images surrounding them, if not for the relation of the images to the words. The text compares the sleeping body to an urban region:

Suppose we choose the hour of deep sleep.
There only in some sparce and out of
the way places are nodes flashing and trains
of light-points running. Such places indicate local
activity still in progress. [...]
(line breaks indicate breaks between collages)

Juxtaposed with the aerial views, deserted spaces, misplaced and mutant creatures of the visual images, these textual passages become descriptions of a bombed-out city, its center dark, some activity on the periphery (the suburbs? This was just at the time that urban planners, like the early cybernetician Norbert Weiner, were writing about urban/suburban structures designed to protect the outer rings while sacrificing the city centers to the nuclear explosion).

This apocalyptic tenor given to the images then reflects back onto the text, no longer just making the dormant city a metaphor for the sleeping body, but allowing the two sides of the metaphor equal weight; city and body, socius and dream world translating one another's energies. The body/mind relation itself a map of the social world, the involuntary functions that keep us breathing a parallel to the human potential embodied here in the collaged recombination of meanings, the dream world as constantly developing archive of possibilities, ways of composing the world alternative to the rationalization of planning and the bomb. It's the way the text and the images remain external to each other, their continuities distinct, never collapsing into commentary, that allows them to intertwine in this dialectic of insides and outsides, cores, peripheries, illumination and darkness. This is surrealism at its most urgently charged, and also, in many ways, at its strangest.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

I just paid a second visit (of at least three) to the exhibit titled Jess: to and from the printed page at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. Yowza.

Jess, known to poets as the lifelong partner of Robert Duncan (both in marriage and artistic collaboration), changed his focus from painting to collage early on (having first arrived at art after working as a chemist on the Manhattan Project, a job that led to a lasting terror of atomic devastation that infuses some of his art). Most of the traveling exhibit is devoted to this collage work, focusing especially on pieces meant for reproduction: books of pieces (some published, some never published), broadsides, posters for shows of his own work and readings by Duncan, book covers for various poets. Don't be misled, though. These are no occasional one-offs. They're rich, brilliant, complex and hilarious fully-fledged artworks that warp scale, address political and interpersonal realities, and bind wide-ranging literary predecessors together in kinky ways.

Jess's most obvious (and admitted) predecessor is Max Ernst (with James Joyce and Lewis Carroll following close behind); these are largely surrealist collages made up of old images (engravings, antiquated books of manners, pre-WWII ads, etc.), and feature many human/animal syntheses and replacement of a given object by another with a similar shape, such as one finds in Ernst's collage work. Nonetheless, I find in them a richness, density, complexity and humor that surpasses the old collage master (whose work I do love), an advance that may be partly attributable to the Bay Area poetic environment in which Jess lived with Duncan for decades. The use of language in Jess falls into various places on the range between the poem and the comic strip; one of my favorites is the second "Didactic Nickelodeon" series, in which, over the course of something like 28 pieces, a gorgeous text about breath while deeply asleep accompanies, a phrase at a time, a series of collages that show the infiltration of dream by historical disaster.

State Street in Madison is a great place to see these pieces; the cross-streets come at such strange angles and at such odd intervals that, at least once, I've stopped dead in my tracks and started to laugh out loud at the absurdity of the layout. Today it seemed like a Jess collage, cut and pasted together, buildings of distinct periodic origins juxtaposed, trees seeming too big or small (I'd think, "how did someone decide on just those spaces between the leaves? It's perfect"). This kind of hangover of perceptual alteration is always, for me, the signal that I've seen, read or heard wonderful art. Standing for half an hour in front of one of these pieces is enough to awaken attention to the forms of daily existence--and laughter, such an adept awakener, is also here in abundance. If you can't see it on State Street, see it elsewhere; it's on the road.

Labels: ,

Thursday, August 23, 2007

I've started a philosophy blog, in the hope that it will encourage me to take notes on my reading and write the little essays I think about frequently. A similar motivation led to this blog, with its focus on poetry, and it hasn't worked that well... so we'll see. Right now there are a mere three posts, and they're pretty widely varied. Just noting it here in case there's a reason anyone besides me might be interested.