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.

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