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Jess: To and From the Printed Page

The Ransom Center exhibition reminds us how the written word sparked a cultural revolution in the 1950s

Reviewed by Rachel Cook, Fri., March 28, 2008

Arts Review

'Jess: To and From the Printed Page'

Harry Ransom Center, through April 6

Part of the mission of the Harry Ransom Center is to present some of the rare books, manuscripts, photography, film, artworks, and other ephemera that it collects, preserves, and displays so that it's available to the public for research, scholarship, education, and delight. In this regard, one of the HRC's great features is its ability to present two exhibitions side by side, typically an exhibition on tour alongside one that draws from the vast range of material within the HRC's collection. The center's ability to frame the traveling exhibit within the context of this cultural material sparks a rich dialogue between the two that might not exist otherwise.

The paired exhibitions "On the Road With the Beats" and "Jess: To and From the Printed Page" remind us how the written word sparked a cultural revolution. Both speak of a time long gone, when radical change was being instigated through writing, poetry, and artwork. Using Jack Kerouac's original manuscript for On the Road as the centerpiece for "On the Road With the Beats" beautifully displays how the written word becomes a conceptual art object. The manuscript is actually a scroll, single-spaced with no paragraph breaks or chapter breaks, where the text weaves back and forth depending on the angle that the typewriter was typing in relation to how the paper was being woven around the rollers. It stretches across the entrance of the exhibit, causing an entire multiangle viewing experience from left to right to even slightly above. While the relationship between Kerouac and Jess – as artist Burgess Collins was known – might seem a bit oblique at first, curator Michael Auping explained in a recent lecture that he sees "the two men finding their unique critical devices within a large, developing 'underground' of cultural change that took the form of movable feasts and poetry readings between New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles." Maybe Kerouac could be considered part of the "East Coast family" and Jess part of the West Coast – either way, both were concerned with taking part in a cultural revolution through the written word.

"Jess: To and From the Printed Page" explores how imagery becomes a form of dialogue with the written word. Included in the exhibition are the artist's "paste-ups," collages composed of old book illustrations and photographs from magazines. Ironically, some of the paste-ups were used as book covers or posters advertising poetry readings or art exhibitions for Jess and his partner, poet Robert Duncan. Jess thought of "books as a form of collage space." He spoke about the paste-ups as containing "many stories, not just a story" and that someone could look at the "network of stories" there and "pick out any story they choose." For instance, in Boob #3 Jess takes an image of a scuba diver with flippers and places the words "Up, Up, Up" behind him, with a horse jumping to the left and a woman on her back, laughing, above; text runs along the edges and is neatly interspersed behind, next to, and in front of the various cutout images. Jess uses the text like taglines in a commercial or book-jacket cover, with phrases like "Keeps going on and on ..." or "But Questions Still Remain." Mind you, this is pre-Photoshop and animation; Jess' collages were being made in the Fifties and reflect a society on the cusp of change.

Jess' early work sheds light on the time period and speaks in reference to a cultural history from a specific geographic location, San Francisco, and an explosion that was about to happen to the youth in the community. Coincidentally, Jess himself took part in a literal explosion that also influenced his work: As a radiochemist with the Army Corps of Engineers, he had a small part in the Manhattan Project that developed the first atom bomb. (Jess had studied chemistry at the California Institute of Technology, painting in his spare time.) Maybe one explosion prompted another.

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