Looking at Jess: To and From the Printed Page, on display at Cornell Fine Arts Museum, is like strolling through the inside of someone else's head. All the San Francisco artist's obsessions, the cultural detritus and lovers' in-jokes, his fears, his joys, find tangible form in his "paste-ups." Those feelings may appear to be literally spelled out in sprinklings of cut-up type and hand-lettering, but they're no less enigmatic than the blobs and wiggles of Abstract Expressionism, the prevailing style of Jess' generation. His legible words and photographic images, when sliced, diced and recombined, can be as unfathomable as his contemporaries' resolutely non-figurative paintings, but the collages seethe with sly wit and a mischievous spirit that knocks the stuffing out of the American dream.

Collage is called the defining technique of Modernism: "a way to turn the fragments of everyday life into imagery that `is` itself charged with the powerful sense of desire and disrupted meaning that fragmentation can instill," says the show's curator, Ingrid Schaffner. Some dispute exists over the inventor of collage, but there's no arguing that its ethos has percolated through successive generations of artists.

The cut-ups and photomontages of the early 20th century, made by disillusioned war protesters like Max Ernst, George Grosz and John Heartfield, were in the heroic mold, brutal and distinctly masculine. Yet collage has a whiff of girlish primness about it, conjuring the Victorian spinster's scrapbook, '70s Mod Podge experiments or teenage locker doors. (Speaking of whiffs, a faint scent of paper decay lingers in the Cornell gallery.) Jess' paste-ups, while they are a cri de coeur against the horrors of war as anguished as those of the German Dadaists, have that feminine feel. Perhaps it's because of the source material: Jess incorporated lines of text from newspapers and hymnals, advertisements from magazines, and Victorian-era woodcuts and engravings; juxtaposed against cheery '50s housewives and square-jawed comic-book heroes, his snappy copy and philosophical tidbits caption illustrations of fairies and classical statuary.

Or perhaps it's because Jess' domestic life, his happy ménage with his companion, the poet and prominent gay figure Robert Duncan, permeated his art. Their work was as intertwined as their lives. Considering they "exchanged vows" in 1951 and were together until Duncan's death in 1988, Duncan can be considered to have been Jess' partner (in the non-romantic sense) as a visual artist. Certainly Jess' explorations of the printed word began when his life with Duncan did.

Born Burgess Collins, Jess broke off his name and relations with his family in the late 1940s, around the time he left his job to enroll in art school in San Francisco. That job was at the Hanford Atomic Energy Project in Richland, Wash., a continuation of his wartime work with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, where he had a small part in the Manhattan Project. In 1948, Collins had a nightmare of "the world destroying itself" — one can only assume this was the culmination of misgivings about his work — that impelled him to start anew. His fear of nuclear holocaust never left him, however, and is a constant theme. "Didactic Nickelodeon, Series Two, ‘The Guardian Angels' Guidebook" (1955) is the work in the Cornell show that deals most explicitly with this atomic anxiety; Jess' customary mischief is muted though his psychedelic vision remains intact. The 37 small collages comprise images of bursting water fountains, floating nuns' headdresses, swarming tourists, Arabs, elephants and an empty-faced Madonna, accumulating a mounting sense of dread.

At the other end of the emotional scale, "Goddess Because II" (1956) shows Jess' subversive humor in a recontextualization of a long-running ad campaign for sanitary napkins, set up in six panels like a comic strip. In the first frame, a woman with a golden curtain tassel for hair runs a lawnmower over an Oriental rug. Another panel's woman wears a garden-party dress and swim cap; in one hand she bears an auger, in the other a jackhammer. Another's head has been replaced by a blank-faced baby doll's. The technical skill required to find and assemble the images — with only minor distortions of scale — while maintaining a dreamlike logic is impressive; the comment on the suppressed rage of these stiffly petticoated '50s glamour girls is biting.

The most moving piece is "Emblems for Robert Duncan I" (1989), a series of seven collages assembled to accompany seven forthcoming volumes of Duncan's poetry. Jess completed these a year after his husband's death, "made in love and rememberance" and inspired by re-reading all of Duncan's work. Lucid, poetic, suffused with affection, loss and tender admiration, these small compositions are almost unbearably intimate.

At first glance Jess: To and From the Printed Page looks monochromatic, austere, even dull, perhaps purely by dint of the fact that most of the source materials are faded black-and-white magazine clippings and old line engravings. The lighting seems stark and in many cases reflects badly off glass-covered pieces. (It's not just annoying but also surprising, as one would expect the fragile, aging paper to require low light exposure.) The installation is basic to the point of ho-hum — though the wall texts are perceptive and well-written — but viewers should persevere. The work rewards closer attention with myriad delights. You find yourself drawing closer, trying to identify tinier and tinier images and words, until you almost bump your nose on the glass.

In a culture saturated with models of DIY identity assemblage (blogs, MySpace and Facebook pages), Jess' sly acts of bricolage feel comfortably modern, his appropriation of and interaction with the printed word utterly prescient.

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Tucked into the smallest of the Cornell galleries, Jack R. Smith's Portraits of American Poets complement Jess' linkage of the printed word with the visual image. On walls painted a warm terra-cotta, 28 tiny portraits of American poets glow like jewels. Having interned at the literary magazine Sumac under writers Dan Gerber and Jim Harrison in his youth, Smith was left with a lifelong love of poetry and poets. His decision to essay this series of portraits was taken when, one day in 2004, he found himself "entranced by light reflecting off Gerber's face as he read."

The poets were painted from photographs, giving them a posed quality not incompatible with Dutch portraiture, a resemblance furthered by Smith's use of black oil as his painting medium. The method suspends colored pigments just above the surface painted upon, so that light reflects off and back through the paint, making the image appear to be lit from behind. These portraits are painted on already-reflective copper and the room is lit brilliantly, so the radiant effect is palpable. Each 6-inch-by-6-inch painting is accompanied by one of its subject's poems; the luminous images play off the words in a way that illustrates the poets' integrity and inner light.

Critics have long argued the differences between poetry and painting. Both Jess and Smith validate the Roman poet Horace's claim: "Ut pictura poesis (As is painting, so is poetry)."


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