Book review – “F. Scott Hess”
F. Scott Hess – Anchises Lost.
By Michael J. Pearce
Artbook fiends will love this edition of “F. Scott Hess,” a magnificent little volume produced to accompany the retrospective of the artist’s work.
I opened up the package containing my copy with some excitement, having coveted it for some months. It’s a beautifully bound book, very well produced, with tight folios of rich glossy pages stitched and wrapped soundly into satisfyingly solid matte hardcovers and tucked neatly into a sturdy box. Its excellent quality belies the absurdly cheap price.
A tipped-in print of a Hess self-portrait titled Mud on a Stick is mounted onto the box, so that before you pull the book from its cozy home and crack the volume open the artist gazes out at you from his chair, painting details onto the half-finished canvas in the image. It’s typical of Hess and his work that in this, the opening image of this retrospective collection, we are immediately confronted with visual trickery – obviously, the artist must have been looking into a mirror to paint himself, but when we look at the image that resulted from that work we replace that mirror. And the canvas the artist is working on in the painting is incomplete – Hess is examining us as much as we examine him, while his imaged self creates the painting within the painting. We get the message – Hess paints himself by looking at us.
This trickery continues inside the box. Cleverly, the elusive artist’s name is printed in relief on the spine and on the front cover of the book in a dense but transparent ink, appearing and disappearing depending on the angle of the light. Here is a glimpse of Hess, and there he goes. It’s an indication of how Hess reveals everything about people in his paintings but carefully conceals himself within that exposure. In giving everything away, he keeps himself to himself.
The guile of the vanishing title doesn’t distract from the dramatic cover image, a detail of Hess’ painting Anchises Lost (above). In characteristically apocalyptic fashion a scene of a burned out car dominates the front cover, while a family of refugees strides purposefully uphill and away from the charred wreck accompanied by their German Shepherds. A man pushes a wheelbarrow filled with possessions. A resolute woman bears the weight of a backpack. On the back cover their house burns, but there’s no turning back, no grief or reminiscence over the lost home. The decision to leave has been made, with complete finality. The face of an elderly, naked man clutching a walking stick and holding up his hand to shield his face from bright journalistic light is split by the spine, weirdly reminiscent of one of Robert Crumb’s mad cartoon characters. Is he distressed that the house is in flames? Why is he alone and naked? Did he set the fire? What’s the narrative here?
The painting is a great choice for the cover piece because it captures a theme frequently manifested in Hess’ paintings. He is fascinated by domestic scenes broken by catastrophe and loves to capture the psychological moments in which his characters are at extremes. Hess acts as an anthropological observer, noting moments of human behavior as curiosities, not judging them but recording them. The title of the painting leads us to a more disinterested analysis – a flipped version of the story of Aeneas and his father Anchises from the classical epic The Aeneid, in which the eponymous hero rescues his Dad from the fall of Troy even though this may cause the deaths of his wife and children – reasoning that he can easily get another wife, and other children, but can never replace his father. A skeptical Hess has reimagined the story so that the hero Aeneas abandons his father to the burning city. The issue of paternal abandonment is a recurrent theme in Hess’ work – in interviews, he has described his burning memories of his father as he deserted his family, driving away after instructing him, “You’re the man of the house, now.” The painting is Hess’ response to his father’s abandonment and appears to be an act of imagined revenge upon him.
Ethical failures like his father’s are a common subject in Hess’ painted world. Like Crumb, Hess is intrigued by people in their most vulgar displays: an impassive crowd of men staring up at the naked, neon-lit body of the hoop dancer; an excited crowd gathered at an eviction – complete with a hilariously ironic self-portrait of the artist as a smiling confederate con-man; the ecstasy of the rioting crowd. From the 1980s to the teens of this century he has consistently painted banal household scenes, too: paintings of people sitting at the dining table and eating, drunk friends barbequing in Silverlake, men shaving. His interiors tend to be messy, working-class – fast food wrappers, burgers, greasy pizzas and big-gulp sodas in huge takeaway cups fill tables. The figures are lit by television screens.
But perhaps because of the context of Hess’ whole body of work these extraordinary paintings of mundane scenes have an aura of mystique around them – what is the hidden meaning within them? When four men play Monopoly together, what do we read from the image? Is there deeper, clever meaning to parse from the scene? Such paintings are infected by the threatened violence of a painting like Attic Icon, in which a half-naked man wields a baseball bat at the top of the stairs in an old house, while a worried couple gaze up at him from the hallway below.
Hess is fascinated by apocalyptic visions of forest fires, revolutions, and disasters, and self-consciously aware of his interest, in one painting – In Transit – crafting an image of himself standing on a chair painting a violent crowd brawling.
An epic sequence of paintings gathers two dozen paintings of fragments of an extraordinary narrative, loosely based on a medieval book of hours. A woman gives birth; a house burns as a girl in nightgown stares aghast at the flames. A boy urinates on stairs as three naked men dress. An ashamed girl cleans up a smashed teacup, accidentally dropped at a bourgeois party. What do these allegories mean? When they were first shown at the end of 2001, Hess said the paintings, “explore the themes of love and passion, desire, beauty, birth and aging, friendship and family, and the nature of life and mortality… these are religious paintings bereft of God, but searching for the core of what it meant to be human.” No meanings are offered in the book, but the images are tremendously alluring – we want to know their secrets, and are delighted by their esoteric nature. We are initiated into the cult of Hess.
Essays by Mike McGee, Leah Ollman, John Seed, and Doug Harvey provide insight into Hess and his paintings. McGee’s focus is on positioning Hess as a representational rebel within the extremities of the avant-gardist rule over the 20th Century. Ollmann describes some of his working process, including his intriguing method of delving into a photographic “morgue” of picture clippings from Der Speigel, a German newspaper. She is interested in Hess’ depiction of a “mirror world,” his paintings as social commentary. Seed’s concern is to place Hess within a small, tightly-knit group of Los Angeles artists who defied the trends toward “deskilling” and “bad painting” of the late 20th-century and to place him biographically within their experiences. Harvey describes Hess as a subversive, making “wrong” paintings that led to his exalted position within the representational art community, for flying the flag of figurative painting despite the pressure of outsider status. All of the essays are well worth the read, and help us to understand the significance of Hess’ achievements, and reveal the reasons that F. Scott Hess is one of America’s most important living painters.