DeFeo Show Offers New Perspective on Artist’s Work

By Sura Wood

The power of Jay DeFeo’s art lies in its perfect balance of heart and mind.

Bay Area artist Jay DeFeo’s most famous piece, “The Rose,” is a towering, textural masterpiece that weighs 2,300 pounds. Exhausted after finishing that monumental project, DeFeo took a four-year hiatus from artmaking. It would be through photography that she emerged, in 1970, from apparent creative dormancy; the camera helped DeFeo reengage and trained her eye to see anew by, as she put it, “forcing my vision through the aperture on a daily basis.”

Though DeFeo shot and printed thousands of photographs over the course of her career, she used the medium primarily to investigate form and to document and compose. However, her production of photographic prints, photocopies and photo collages notably increased during the 1970s, a fertile period examined in “Undersoul: Jay DeFeo,” opening this month at the San Jose Museum of Art.

“Photography consumed DeFeo at a critical juncture as she rebuilt her studio life after a period of physical, emotional and creative exhaustion, questioning her past and her way forward,” writes the show’s co-curator, Lauren Schell Dickens, in a catalog essay. In its exploration of this lesser-known aspect of the artist’s multi-dimensional practice, the exhibition connects DeFeo’s photography with her paintings and works on paper of the 1970s and ’80s, while highlighting a visual vocabulary expressed across media and an array of subjects. Encouraged to make photo-collages by assemblage wizard Bruce Conner, and urged by her students at San Francisco Art Institute to take advantage of the facility’s darkroom, DeFeo began photographing items close to home: vacuum cleaners, the delicate architecture of plants, dismembered mannequins, a telephone, her dental bridge and even her dog’s leg prosthetic.

“Rather than signaling a new direction… the large body of photography DeFeo produced during the 1970s is both reflective of and integral to her painting and drawing process,” Dickens notes. “Her photographic work operates within a consideration of primal forms and elemental symbols…uniting the cosmos to studio objects and to life around her, a territory dubbed the ‘undersoul’ by her friend, beat poet Michael McClure.”

Inspired by Japanese woodblock prints and architectural imagery, the blazing red “Firesign” (1984) is one of four DeFeo works from the museum’s permanent collection that’s on display. The large oil painting marked a return to intense color uncommon in the works she produced during the 1970s. A crumpled triangle shape dominates the angular composition, suggesting a three-dimensional quality and a sensation of movement with diagonals directing the eye in and around the painting. DeFeo was an avid collector of reproductions of found architectural images and “Firesign” directly relates to her interest in the subject. More than a decade earlier she had taken a photo of her bathroom after covering its walls in foil. The resulting image focuses on a mirror reflecting the doorway across the room. “As in ‘Firesign,’” notes co-curator Kathryn Wade, “there’s a kind of square black hole—a portal—just off center, around which architectural dimensionality radiates.”

DeFeo’s small-scale, grayish photographic images and her works on paper and paintings
are open to interpretation. Components of familiar objects, disconnected from their sources, are meticulously assembled in sometimes-abstract compositions, making it difficult to determine the exact nature of the materials she used, or even, at times, what one is seeing. “Untitled,” from the “Shoetree” series (1977), is a mixed-media, gouache and ink picture of a part of the object named in its title, surrounded by wispy tendrils of unidentifiable origin arcing upwards.

A 1979 photo appears to be of a wrinkled, half-open garment bag; another work is a straightforward depiction of a dog’s paw prints on a soggy beach alongside patterns made by tire tracks, the sunlight glinting off the moist sand. A photograph of what looks like a singed remnant of a cardboard box is actually a paint fragment from DeFeo’s unfinished work “Estocada,” which she’d been painting on her wall; facing eviction from her Fillmore studio in 1965, she peeled off sections and stored the artifacts under her bed for almost a decade. “Blind Spot” (“One O’Clock Jump” series), 1978, shows a broken tape dispenser, the hole at its center bearing a remarkable resemblance to a camera aperture. One of the more disquieting images is a multi-layered collage from 1972 that combines a photograph of a surreal, hand-drawn, Dali-eseque eye (a recurrent motif for DeFeo), inset with an image of a sliced mannequin’s breast standing in for the pupil; thin vertical lines, functioning like strings, hold the lid open. And, in a photocopy from 1979, a skeleton that has taken ghostly shape peers out of the grainy darkness; however, on closer inspection, one can discern bone fragments and compass pieces lying on top of what might be a dissection table.

DeFeo’s photographs were an essential part of her dynamic oeuvre, “but photography was not just a means for recording or archiving,” explains Wade. “She was interested in the materiality of it, in its substances. She explored dark room chemicals the way she did oil paint and acrylic. In this exhibition, the formal and practical ways DeFeo used photography bring a new perspective to her drawings and paintings. I hope audiences find pleasure in the opportunity for close looking and discover the visual resonances within her works across time and media.”

Wade leads a tour through the exhibition March 14.

“Undersoul: Jay DeFeo”

March 8 → July 7

San Jose Museum of Art

110 South Market St., San Jose