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At Hyperallergic, Jess Collins and Robert Duncan’s World Illustrated

By Harriet Staff


In time for the NYU Grey Art Gallery’s An Opening of the Field: Jess, Robert Duncan, and Their Circle, Christopher Lyon takes a close look at Jess Collins and Robert Duncan’s magical universe.

In 1952, intrepid detective Tricky Cad climbed (anagramatically) out of the letters Dick Tracy to inhabit frames of Chester Gould’s popular comic strip. The artist Jess, with an unerring ear for uncanny word juxtapositions, scrambled the existing dialogues (with what he called his “maxmister”) and deftly wielded his X-Acto knife to create subtly Surreal visual interventions. His aim, he said, was to demonstrate “a hermetic critique self-contained in popular art” — in other words, to read the detritus of quotidian life as if it were allegory.

Language plays many roles in Jess’s art, from unrestrained puns (the lowest form of humor, said my father) to delightfully inventive rearrangement of found texts. His reworkings of Dick Tracy comic strips are the best known of these. “Tricky Cad (case II)” (1954), a splendid early example recently rediscovered, is now on view at Tibor de Nagy Gallery, in a show titled Jess: Looking Past Seeing Through. The other five surviving examples from the full run of eight Tricky Cad cases, together with a generous selection of the many small collages created by Jess, are reproduced in Jess: O! Tricky Cad & Other Jessoterica (Siglio Press, 2012), edited and introduced by Michael Duncan.

With a headline reading “TRACK A DIRACY RAT” under the banner San Francisco Coroner for Septunday Duly 35, 1954, the recently found collage contains 66 Dick Tracy cartoon frames assembled in a 2×3-foot grid. The rearranged dialogue in some cases rises to the level of Ashbery-like poetry:

The phone’s threaded with
rain! But no exposures
have been fugitive.

The final frame has Tricky saying to a dumbstruck cop — significantly — “See what I mean?”

What does he mean? Investigate An Opening of the Field: Jess, Robert Duncan, and Their Circle, at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery until March 29. The show presents a slice of the rich Northern California art world of the postwar years: paintings, sculptures, and ephemera — some works challenging in their density of allusion and conceptual sophistication, others cheerfully slapdash or provincially sincere — by artists and poets captured in the gravitational field emanating from the household of Jess and the poet Robert Duncan. Much of what is here is not “gallery art,” in a commercial sense, but art created by and for a small community of friends, colleagues, and lovers, rooted in a specific place and cultural moment.

A modest but choice selection of Jess’s work provides the show’s focus. The reclusive San Francisco artist became best known for his “paste-ups” — intricate, sometimes very large collages — and his Translations paintings, made between 1959 and 1972, which are based on found images including snapshots, Egyptian wall paintings, and illustrations whose sources range from children’s books to a 19th-century volume of Scientific American. He met Duncan in 1950, and they became lovers and life partners. They made art and poetry together, sometimes collaborating directly but always responding in their work to each other, until Duncan’s death in 1988 (Jess died in 2004).

Have you been? If not– go! Read on about it at Hyperallergic.

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Posted in Poetry News on Thursday, February 13th, 2014 by Harriet Staff.