Burgess Franklin Collins, born August 6, 1923, began his adult life showing a great deal of promise in the sciences. Collins majored in chemistry at the California Institute of Technology, and in 1943 was drafted into the Army Corps of Engineers where he assisted in the development of plutonium for the Manhattan Project. After being discharged in 1946, Collins then went to work at the Hanford Atomic Energy Project in Washington state. During this period he spent most of his free time painting and reading, but nevertheless was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with his life and the knowledge of what his research was ultimately being used for. One morning in 1949, he woke from a nightmare in which he had a vivid and deeply disturbing vision of a nuclear apocalypse. This dream became the final catalyst for the artist’s drastic reassessment of his direction in life. Shortly thereafter, Collins left his job, enrolled in the California School the Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute), and dropped his last name, from then on referring to himself exclusively as “Jess.”
Jess became something of a cult figure in San Francisco, as the cultural movement now known as the San Francisco Renaissance was initially emerging. He met and fell in love with erudite poet Robert Duncan in 1951 and remained his romantic and artistic partner until Duncan’s death in 1988. While together, the two accumulated houses full of books, music, and artwork- a significant portion of it having been created by either themselves or their friends. Jess created a great deal of art for his friends in turn; the sly, wink-and-nod fraternity of his work speaks to this sort of genial exchange. Jess and Duncan’s shared interests in myth, wordplay, and metaphor contributed heavily to the work that each of them produced and acquired during this time. As Duncan himself quipped, “You couldn’t take a piss in this house without getting hit with a myth.”
Jess is best known for his dense and intricate collages, which he called “paste-ups.” The work includes minimalist reconstructions of slogans from magazine advertisements, as well as thick, almost incomprehensible layers of scientific diagrams, Victorian illustrations, and “speech bubbles” – slivers of text containing statements ranging from the philosophical to the absurd. Jess’ talent at grammatical and textual play is apparent through these delicately placed scraps- sometimes nothing more than an individual letter or phoneme- which continually engage the viewer in a coy and mystifying ramble through each piece. Jess particularly liked to pun with rhymes and homophones, creating bizarre snippets of language which tend to stick in the mind like a jingle. It is easy to see the influences of James Joyce as well as Robert Duncan in these opaque, lyrical abstractions.
Throughout his work, the stoic world of Scientific American, the stern figures of 19th century bookplates, and the hush-hush homo-eroticism of mail-order men’s “physique” magazines all commingle into an impish, absurdist nursery rhyme in which it is easy to become lost. His Tricky Cad series of doctored Dick Tracy comic strips employs this wry humor to great effect; alternating visually apparent textual alterations with seamless modifications of characters’ or objects’ physical form. The result is a borderline-irrational adventure in which detectives stutter out bizarre interjections as they forensically determine “ring numbers” and assert that “clues can be arsywhere.” Jess continually reminds the viewer that the text has been revised, but craftily inserts almost undetectable changes right alongside, fashioning a palpable ambiguity that reinforces the nonsensical nature of the series. Jess created a number of other altered comic strips, including Big Ben Bolt and Nance; (from Warren Tuft’s Lance) but none so extensive as Tricky Cad.
From 1993-94, as Jess entered his 70s, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, NY held a broad retrospective of the artist’s work. Further exhibitions of “Jess: A Grand Collage” followed in New York City, Washington, and San Francisco. Jess passed away in early 2004, a few months after his 80th birthday. His work continues to be regarded by many as deeply influential to San Francisco culture, and indeed to the artistic world as a whole. His usage of newspaper clippings, comic book pages, and prominent iconography invoked the essence of pop art nearly a decade before its emergence in American culture. His playful and irreverent inferences to homosexual lust and love stood in quiet bravery against the era’s overwhelming culture of fear and intolerance. He seemed to approach his work in the same way he approached his life- with gentle rebelliousness, unceasing devotion, and a delightful wit which continues to inspire, even into the 21st century.
-Johnson, Ken. “Jess, 80, San Francisco Artist Known for Layered Imagery.” New York Times, January 10, 2004. http://www.nytimes.com/2004/
01/10/arts/jess-80-san- francisco-artist-known-for- layered-imagery.html.
-Geha, Katie. “The Assemblages of Jess.” Poetry Foundation. http://www.poetryfoundation.
-Baker, Kenneth. “Jess Collins — S.F. painter, collage artist.” SF Gate, January 7, 2004. http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/
article/Jess-Collins-S-F- painter-collage-artist- 2816454.php.
-Solnit, Rebecca. “Inventing San Francisco’s Art Scene.” Queer Cultural Center. http://www.
-Duncan, Michael, ed. O! Tricky Cad & Other Jessoterica. Los Angeles: Siglio Press and Jess Collins Trust, 2012. -Wikipedia. “Jess Collins.” 2012. Accessed September 29, 2013. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/
(All images) copyrighted by the Jess Collins Trust and published in O! Tricky Cad & Other Jessoterica, edited by Michael Duncan, Siglio, 2012.
Special thank you to Lisa Pearson and Siglio Press.
Jess, Untitled (Lean Mouth for Hours), 1953. Collage, 10 3/4 x 8 1/4 inches.
Courtesy of the Jess Collins Trust, Berkeley, CA and the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, NY. Photography by Alan Wiener.
Text by Meghan Maloney
Editor’s Note: This feature was originally published on our previous platform, In the In-Between: Journal of Digital Imaging Artists.
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