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Review: The serious artist's cat painting and other idiosyncratic standouts from Jess

Review: The serious artist's cat painting and other idiosyncratic standouts from Jess
“Kit Kat, Imaginary Portrait #12” by Jess, 1955. Oil on canvas board, 14 inches by 18 inches. (Kohn Gallery and Tibor de Nagy)

In a sense, all artists are eccentrics: people who do their own thing in ways that may seem strange to others. Jess (1923-2004) is an eccentric among eccentrics.

He was born Burgess Franklin Collins in Long Beach, got drafted into the military and worked on the production of plutonium used in the nuclear bombs exploded over Japan. When World War II ended, he abandoned his career as an atomic scientist, enrolled in art school, broke with his family, began calling himself Jess and entered a relationship with Robert Duncan that continued until the poet’s death in 1988.

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To visit “Jess — Secret Compartments” at Kohn Gallery in Los Angeles is to glimpse a soul who couldn’t care less about stylistic consistency (or establishing his brand as an artist). Instead, Jess did what he did because it seemed right at the time.

His paintings, collages and drawings stand out from the work of other artists. More peculiar, they stand out from themselves. It’s rare to see a solo show in which so many works stick out like sore thumbs — and look great doing so.

"A Wish in the Form of a Landscape," 1954. Oil on canvas, 40 by 52 inches.
"A Wish in the Form of a Landscape," 1954. Oil on canvas, 40 by 52 inches. (Kohn Gallery)
"Untitled (Pooh Figure)" by Jess, 1953. Collage, 18 inches by 23 inches.
"Untitled (Pooh Figure)" by Jess, 1953. Collage, 18 inches by 23 inches. (Kohn Gallery)

Organized by Tibor de Nagy gallery in New York, the traveling exhibition is Jess’ third in Los Angeles, following shows in 1965 and in 2008. Twenty-five of its 46 works were made in the 1950s. The majority of the remainder date from the ’60s and ’70s. A smattering of works from the ’80s and ’90s are interspersed among three undated studies.

From the get-go, “Secret Compartments” homes in on the idiosyncrasy at the heart of Jess’ art. On the first wall hang two pairs of paintings made between 1951 and 1955.

Each pair is a study in extremes: tempestuous gestural abstraction versus serenely dreamy landscape, and brooding, thickly built-up beach scene juxtaposed with an imaginary society portrait, its lavishly dressed ladies coming off as ghostly apparitions because they were painted with nearly dry brushes and a kind of frugality that suggests Jess was worried he’d run out of paint before he got the job done.

“Sea Cove” by Jess, 1952. Oil on canvas, 17-7/8 inches by 23-7/8 inches.
“Sea Cove” by Jess, 1952. Oil on canvas, 17-7/8 inches by 23-7/8 inches. (Kohn Gallery and Tibor de Nagy)
"Two Northern Ladies Set Out" by Jess, 1955. Oil wash on unsized canvas, 25-7/8 inches by 17-7/8 inches.
"Two Northern Ladies Set Out" by Jess, 1955. Oil wash on unsized canvas, 25-7/8 inches by 17-7/8 inches. (Kohn Gallery)

On the next wall, similar collisions play out — first in a pair of collages, then in a trio of graphite drawings, and finally in juxtaposed oil paintings. Each of these sets of wildly diverse works is riddled with inconsistencies and all the more potent for it. The worlds within worlds do not close themselves off from reality but invite double takes.

That dynamic plays out on every wall. It takes stunning shape in a series of erotic idylls, in a set of whimsical illustrations for homemade fairy tales and in a group of mystical inscriptions whose fancifully patterned backgrounds give the Tower of Babel-style texts a run for their money — and then some.

“Untitled (Girl With Geese)” by Jess, 1955. Collage, 13.75 inches by 9.75 inches.
“Untitled (Girl With Geese)” by Jess, 1955. Collage, 13.75 inches by 9.75 inches. (Kohn Gallery and Tibor de Nagy)

Cat pictures and subjects beloved by Sunday painters reveal that Jess was not afraid to be mistaken for an amateur — or shy about letting you know that the root of that word is love, not superficiality or dilettantism. The mystique — and pretentions — of professionalism are nowhere to be found in his art. With unfailing consistency, he pursued the unguarded authenticity of real sentiments, even if such feelings are often taken to be sentimental clichés.

In the second gallery, collages combine bracing observations of life’s cruelties with the conviction that innocence must be protected, cultivated and fought for. The same is true of Jess’ sketches and drawings for books of poetry and collaborations with poets. A suitcase-size flip book and a film of the 41 collages that make up that sculptural volume anchor the second gallery, which, like the first, is all about getting visitors to see things differently — and behave accordingly.

Kohn Gallery, 1227 N. Highland Ave., L.A. Through Sept. 7; closed Sundays and Mondays. (323) 461-3311, www.kohngallery.com.

“Sultry Eucalyptus Beach” by Jess, 1953. Oil on canvas, 20.25 inches by 16 inches.
“Sultry Eucalyptus Beach” by Jess, 1953. Oil on canvas, 20.25 inches by 16 inches. (Kohn Gallery and Tibor de Nagy)
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