All the Goods of the World
Oil and egg tempera on canvas
72″ x 72″
Photo: courtesy Koplin Del Rio Gallery

It is an elaborate hoax, a more or less entirely confabulated account carefully based on but parodying actual events, and made more credible by its wealth of intricately fashioned artefacture. “The Paternal Suit” pretends to be a lesson in American history as embodied in the blood lines of an individual man. What it is in reality, is that man’s magnum opus (to date)-a many-sectioned work of art that, to paraphrase the dictum of another art-maker, advances “a lie that enables us to realize the truth.”

“The Paternal Suit” is the concept and handiwork of F. Scott Hess, and brims with the same subversive imagination and attention to detail that has characterized his paintings for the last four decades. His frequent exhibitions in Los Angeles, where he lives and paints, invariably evince that imagination and that handiwork. But a two-part survey at institutions in Hollywood and Orange County this past spring (at CSU Fullerton and LA Municipal Art Gallery, respectively), backed up by a show of mostly recent work at his hometown gallery, Koplin Del Rio, reminded audiences that Hess’s vision is at once classical and inimitable, mercurial and persistent. The survey, reaching back to the artist’s student years, also helped place Hess in a global as well as local context. Meanwhile, “The Paternal Suit: Heirlooms from the F. Scott Hess Family Foundation” arrives in Southern California this summer at the Long Beach Museum of Art (July 10 – Oct 5, 2014) as part of a nationwide tour, bringing a whole other look at the Hess sensibility.

Locally, and to a certain extent nationally, F. Scott Hess is identified with a concerted resurgence in historically based representational painting-painting, that is, that sources its imagery in the real world and grounds this approach, intellectually and technically, in the examples of the Old Masters. As Hess’s retrospective showed, the term “Old Masters” has broadened since 19th century commentators coined it; it now includes not only those commentators’ naturalist and impressionist contemporaries, but even the realists and surrealists who more recently complicated modernism’s trajectory. Those, like Hess, who argue for a “new Old Mastery” see their practice less as anachronism than as continuity, something that never went away. In the wake of conceptualism’s academic enfeeblement, abstraction’s vitiation by the art market, and the ubiquity of digital media, such figurative practice, goes the argument, provides a fresh alternative-fresh not least because it can no longer be dismissed as retardataire.

Of course, New Figurative painters like Hess can dodge the “reactionary” label simply by pointing to the a-historicizing effect of post-modernist theory. But it’s not enough to paint nudes and flowers well; you have to invest them with both optical force and contextual vibrancy. A portrait or an interior is not simply an opportunity for an artist to display chops. It is a demand that the artist imagine a circumstance, conjure an atmosphere, set a scene, even tell a story-and do so in a way that photography, cinema, video can’t quite manage. (That is where painting well comes in.)

No one does all this better than Hess-and, partly as a result, no one argues this quite as well. A subtle but forceful polemic runs through Hess’s painting, arising from the constant references his pictures make to Old Master predecessors-a broad raft of references that does not favor Titian, for instance, over Courbet but trades knowingly in gestures and compositions from across the history of Western (and occasionally, non-Western) art, gestures and compositions art audiences can sense without quite recognizing. What Hess avers with this ongoing process of updating is that historical works such as those upon which he so often models his own paintings are recognized as masterpieces not only because they are so exquisitely rendered, but because they tell their tales so well, to the point where we cannot help but empathize with people and creatures who existed long ago, if ever. As W. H. Auden wrote, “About suffering they were never wrong, The Old Masters…”

Hess’s martyrs and demigods are decidedly latter-day. With rare exceptions he has always painted people and places he knows or can imagine around him. His claim to a renewal of humanistic content in art practically requires that his myths and allegories be stated in contemporary terms. In this context, the effect of translating, say, the Expulsion from the Garden of Eden into a depiction of a cloudburst over Disneyland can have a bathetic edge; but its comedy is pointedly divine, and its treatment awe-inspiring in its own way. Sudden Storm (1987) is a cathedral-sized painting, 11 feet wide, only one of many in Hess’s oeuvre. He swings for the bleachers, inspired by the cinematic breadth of church frescoes, grandes machines, and even WPA murals. At the same time, Hess is capable of a riveting intimacy, zooming in on moments and on the warts and wrinkles dignifying his friends’ faces.

Hess’s painterly manner studies those details often at the expense of the whole; his portraits tend to resemble one another more than their subjects do, modeled as they are with a consistently effulgent brush and fierce, frequently melodramatic light. The distorting nature of this hallucinatory super-realism may make people’s visages look peculiar, but it crucially energizes Hess’s narrative multi-figure compositions. He adds to this luminous intensification of edges and surfaces by skewing even the most compressed of spatial depictions so that it invariably threatens to engulf the viewer while unmooring its inhabitants.

These acid-trip touches persist from Hess’s youth-a youth spent not in psychedelic abandon, but in Vienna, where he studied for five years at the Academy of Fine Art. The famed Academy was then under the sway of Magic Realist painters such as Ernst Fuchs, Arik Brauer, and Rudolf Hausner, and their baroque approach to Surrealism took hold in Hess’s own painting. His work from the 1980s, spanning his Viennese days and his first years in LA, rides on a kind of delirium induced by nature and urban space, light and sound, and the intricate dramas playing out soundlessly between individuals. Such intoxication began to mellow as Hess began a family and gained a more mature grip on the world-not least by spending a year in his wife’s native Iran. (He was probably the first American to be given an artistic residency in the Islamic Republic.) But the touch of the marvelous has never left Hess’s pictorial sensibility; even his still lifes glow with preternatural intensity.

Hess’s most bizarre work, however, is his most seemingly realistic. “The Paternal Suit,” at the Long Beach Museum of Art through October 5, assembles over a hundred paintings, works on paper, and objects in what purports to be a history of the United States as traced, humorously and often damningly, through the family tree of a single American. It is not clear which of Hess’s ancestors were real, which are inventions, and what deeds and objects can be credibly attributed or not. But the entire display operates as a many-faceted whole, some facets more unlikely than others. This is a “magic realism” more American-even Latin American, a la Borges or Marquez-than European.

“The Paternal Suit,” which took Hess eight years to collate, may be his most ambitious work to date, but one doubts it is the artist’s apotheosis. About to turn 60, and finding his artwo
rk and his artistic convictions gaining increasing currency, F. Scott Hess has even grander notions to essay. How he will manifest them remains to be seen. Having reached operatic scale and richness, Hess’s art has earned its ever-wider stage.