When I saw “The Enamored Mage” in person I was completely transfixed. Painted with heavy impasto, the protrusions of paint gush out of the surface, some following the image, some swelling under it. Slightly deflated and glossy, the shapes of color look simultaneously decomposed and bejeweled, like a Technicolor fungus growing out of the intricate netting of incised lines. Looking at the painting, my first thought was how was this made? For a painting so physical, there is no trace of brush marks or even layering of paint. The longer I tried to decode Jess’s process, the more I became mystified by it.
This painting is part of the “Translations” series of 32 paintings, all dedicated to the Sun. Each painting is a meticulous interpretation of a single image, pulled from Jess’s huge archive of magazines, children’s books, comic strips, found photographs and photographs from his personal family album. “The Enamored Mage” is based off of a photo of Jess’s partner, the poet Robert Duncan. This reference photo is the only one in the Translations series that Jess took himself, and depicts Duncan in their home amidst his books.
In the painting, the theme of Sun and light is hinted at by the two burning candles, the Tiffany lamp, the window in the background and the “Zohar” books, which means ‘glow’ in Hebrew. Although usually faithful to the tonal structure of the reference photo, this time Jess made some interventions- he added flames to the two candles, which strangely do not emit light, and toned down the light that was hitting the books. In doing so, Jess made Duncan’s portrait seem to illuminate the room, reflecting on the edge of the desk below him like a celestial body rising over a lake.
Duncan is not only the subject and light source of the painting. His poem “The Ballad of the Enamored Mage” is referenced in the painting’s enigmatic title. The last few lines of the first verse of the poem read:
How all Forms in Time will grow
And return to their single Source
Informed by Grief, Joy, insatiable Desire
And cold Remorse
By invoking Ecclesiastes’ “All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return,” Duncan meditates on the bond between material and spirit. This belief that material, whether pigment or images, holds within it emotional meaning was essential to Jess’s practice. Jess saw his paintings as “salvages”. By painting the otherwise forgotten images he appropriated, he continued their life cycle, imbuing them with his own thoughts, experiences and feelings.
Through painstaking care, the intense and inexplicable surface of “The Enamored Mage” comes to embody Jess’s love for Duncan. This painting is a tribute to their relationship, their shared passions and the home they made for themselves. But ironically the ‘light’ of Jess and Duncan’s love had to exist behind closed doors. Homosexuality would remain criminal in California for more than a decade after this painting was made. Maybe Jess’s obsession with the Sun was an expression of his desire to live his life out in the open. Or rather, maybe painting “The Enamored Mage” was his way of bringing the Sun into his home, in the form of his beloved Duncan.
*Biographical information taken from- Michael Auping, “Jess: A Grand Collage”