F. Scott Hess Retrospective
By MEGAN ABRAHAMS, APR. 2014
I think it’s important art functions that way, that it grab you viscerally before you think about what it’s saying. -- F. Scott Hess
In a rapturous marriage of old world technique and new world narrative, laced with penetrating social commentary and psychological insight, the paintings of F. Scott Hess first entice us, then hold us riveted. Initially we’re grabbed by the subject matter. Hess’s work is mostly figurative, and many of his paintings include numerous figures, portrayed in scenes that might be described as disconcerting. Even the most seemingly placid of Hess’s subjects is fraught with tension and steeped in allegory. Given a superficial glance, Necessary Oblation (2008, 24 X 20 inches, oil on canvas) appears to be a tranquil scene with two figures; in fact it’s a portrait of Hess and one of his daughters. Portrayed in a green tunic, the girl pours water from a glass vase, through which the color of her dress is magnified. The father gazes outside, not at his daughter. It is unclear exactly what is at stake, but it seems important. In a walkthrough of the exhibition, Hess discussed the symbolic meaning behind the title: the poured water implies that children drain the lives out of their parents.
This two-part retrospective (the other half was exhibited at California State Fullerton’s Begovich Gallery) surveys more than 60 paintings from 1978 to the present. In the late 1970s, Hess went to Austria to explore the mid-twentieth century European figurative painters, including the Viennese Fantastic Realists. He met and studied with Rudolph Hausner, one of the group’s founders, at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. While there, he learned to paint in the classical technique of the old masters, using oil paint and egg tempera. In his own adaptation of the European tradition, Hess infused his work with a more vibrant palette, escaping the traditional subdued sepias, umbers and amber light. Responding to his use of color, Hess’s art teachers in Vienna rebuked it as being “too American.”
The year 1983 was pivotal for the artist. He produced 15 large paintings and grew tired of Vienna. As Hess said, “You go around Vienna and it’s quite beautiful, but it weighs you down.” In 1984, he came to Hollywood and embarked on a new phase in his work, combining incisive social criticism, with a shifted perspective borrowed from the medium of film. “What worked for me was a Viennese darkness combined with Hollywood color and a cinematic viewpoint,” said Hess. He uses this cinematic perspective to striking effect, for example the viewer doesn’t often confront the subject straight on, but rather at an angle, as in Her Garden (1990, 72 x 60 inches, oil on canvas). In this composition, the woman’s figure is foreshortened. She stands above the gardener, who is hunched over, shoveling the earth, the sinews and muscles of his back defined by swirling brushstrokes. The evident tension between the two figures is deliberately exaggerated by the dramatic point of view. Through the female’s gaze, Hess conveys her lust for the gardener in an understated way. On another level, the painting commemorates the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of America, as depicted on the female figure’s shirt.
Fresnel’s Boots (2003, 32.5 X 40.5 inches, oil on canvas) is unique among Hess’s work, and the only example in this exhibition without figures. Here, the very absence of a figure is the calculated source of profound dramatic impact. On the balcony of a weatherbeaten lighthouse on a promontory overlooking the sea, the sole clue to a human presence is a pair of boots, one of which has toppled over on the floor. The subtle and evocative clue pulls the viewer in, compelling us to wonder what might have happened to Fresnel.
The de facto point of figurative painting, from the primitives to the present, has been the documentation of human life and history. Yet questions of who, what, when and where frequently only yield superficial information. The most compelling question -- why -- is at the center of Hess’s inquiry. In his visionary paintings, Hess employs his singularly brilliant technical eloquence, driven by subject matter that often borders on shocking. Rape, riots and revolution are among many themes Hess is driven to explore in his work. The Los Angeles artist acknowledges that some of the paintings may be difficult to hang over the couch. “A lot of the emotion in my life goes into my work. A lot of those emotions aren’t positive. It has to do with being a human in society. I never shy away from anything.”
Death lurks, invisible but omnipresent, in Hess’s powerful narrative repertoire. Among the earliest pieces represented, Razor’s Edge (1982, 48 X 60 inches, oil on canvas) portrays a young man shaving at a sink. The work is characterized by circular brushstroke patterns reminiscent of Van Gogh. Perhaps there is an implied reference to the W. Somerset Maugham novel of almost the same name -- the story of a disillusioned man seeking the meaning of life. What is striking here, is the possibility of imminent suicide as the figure holds the razor at a menacing angle under his own chin. Death recurs as a theme in Riverbed (2004, 48 x 60 inches, oil on canvas). A female figure, clothed only in a slip, lies among tangled branches. In the foreground, a man looks on, the fine detail in the soles of his feet echoing the burnt sienna of the earth on which he reclines. There is an air of mystery, and something ominous. The awkward pose of the female implies the possibility she could be dead.
One of the most recent works in this retrospective, Learning the Language of Water (2013, 31 x 41 inches, oil on canvas) is most notable for the extraordinary way Hess captures the optical essence of water, and the quality of the light that penetrates its depths. The subject, a nude female figure, is suspended below the surface, a tracery of light reflected on her skin. Her image is reflected from below the surface. This beautiful painting, with its exquisite rendering of light, seems to suggest death as well. Equally graphic is Hess’s depiction of a woman in the act of giving birth, as she grasps the baby’s neck as if strangling it before it is born. In Flood Plain (1999, 48 x 64 inches oil on canvas), death again emerges, an underlying player.
Among the larger, more cinematic paintings in the retrospective, In Transit (2011-2013, 84 x 144 inches, oil on canvas) represents the climax of the show. Painted over a period of three years, it is the confluence of multiple complex themes. A painting within a painting, it portrays the artist working on a large canvas in his studio. On either side of the canvas are the fixtures of a room -- an open laptop on a stool, a stack of books including The Hidden Life of Art with paint tubes and a bottle of turpentine resting on top, a pair of eyeglasses. Juxtaposed in the background is a large-scale crowd-scene the artist is pictured in the act of painting. On its left side, the crowd appears to be enjoying a day at the beach. The crowd on its right side is engaged in a violent riot. In conjuring this extraordinary scene, Hess flows seamlessly through a multi-layered perspective of vast scale to the most refined and tiny details such as the lettering on the spines of the books on the shelves. Discussing his process, Hess revealed that some of the faces in his crowd scenes are portraits of actual people, while others are imagined. Among the faces in the crowd is that of a young girl who might have re-emerged from the Renaissance. Throughout this work, classical artifacts co-exist in profound contrast with contemporary references, like the juxtaposition of the skull on the bookcase and the high-rise building looming in the background. Hess’s work seems to span and encompass the centuries – transcending convention and defying expectation. Alluding to his crowd scene Hess comments simply, “I thought of it as a parade of life.”
Among the influences he credits for inspiration, is the Fellini film 8 1/2. “It changed me. That procession at the end of the movie -- sort of a destructive side and a constructive side.” Even if it weren’t for the staggeringly dramatic impact of Hess’s work, his fluency with the human figure, innovative approach to perspective, and the psychological weight of his subjects, his work would still be captivating for the stories they tell. His paintings cover the breadth of human experience -- exploring themes such as birth, death, humor, sex, the psyche, and voyeurism... They are resplendent in their surprising use of color and ingenious rendering of light, bolstered by the occasional addition of egg tempera for richness and luminosity. “What I learned is to let the image speak and not to control the composition,” Hess said. The upshot of this approach is a body of work replete with layers of astounding complexity and gripping in its unpredictability -- a continual discovery.
Guest Curator: Mike McGee, Director, Begovich Gallery at California State University, Fullerton. This exhibition is a collaboration between the CSUF Begovich Gallery and the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery (LAMAG) at Barnsdall Park, and is accompanied by a 160-page catalog. Hess is represented by Koplin del Rio Gallery, Culver City.
Noah Becker: Editor-in-Chief