AND OLD MASTERS
Hess is a master portraitist. His portraits, whether of himself, his surrogates or other people, do what a portrait should ideally do: convey what is universal and unavoidable in human nature through the contingent appearance of a particular person. His portraits are generally of artists, art aficionados or family members. Whether they want to be or not, these people are implicated in his art, not only as subject matter in which he has a personal interest but as a catalyst of his self-consciousness -- that is, his consciousness of himself as an artist, an all-consuming, superordinate identity that subsumes all his other identities. Whatever the situation, he almost always stands apart, defending his isolation with irony.††††
The Measure of Life and The Measure of Love (both 2004) make the point subtly: Hess is the alienated artist, even in the bosom of his family. Both paintings reveal, in a manner worthy of Degasí Bellelli Family (1858-67), unconscious family tensions and alliances. In The Measure of Life, Hess and his Iranian wife are close together -- but he faces one way, she another, suggesting that theyíre slightly at odds, even seriously different -- while one of their daughters happily floats far from them in the river sheís been cleaning. In The Measure of Love, one daughter holds her motherís mirror, an old symbol of self-absorption and vanity, while the other daughter is absorbed in watching her father, who is absorbed in stretching the thin measuring string that tenuously -- dare one say, ironically? -- connects them. It begins in a womb-like, generative coil at the foot of the mother, passes through the hands of the daughters, and rises to the height of the artist, who stands above them and looks skyward -- a position of transcendental aspiration and alienation simultaneously, suggesting that the natural creativity of woman is quite different from that of the laboring male artist, a perennial theme in Hessí art.
Woman must labor at giving birth -- thatís the Biblical message of Flood Plain (1999) -- but it is a labor that is the fruit of love for another human being, not just self-love, as the artistís labor tends to be, at least according to many psychoanalysts. The string also alludes to Penelopeís knitting/weaving, carried on while she was waiting for Odysseus to return from the Trojan war (and to keep her suitors at bay, for she undid it when they were asleep), suggesting that the women in Hessí life are patiently waiting for him to return from work, that is, come down from his ladder -- the architectural work of measuring, which is like that of building a picture, and quite unlike intimacy, which cannot be measured or fathomed. Does the string allude to Freudís idea that knitting/weaving, womanís supposedly archetypal labor, is a sublimation of female masturbation? Does the juxtaposition of phallic flashlight and newborn infant in Flood Plain allude to Freudís idea that a baby is womanís substitute penis? Such ideas are never far from Hessí pictures.
The tools of Hessí trade feature prominently in many pictures, and carpentry tools appear in The Measure of Love. They also appear in Noah Forgotten (1995), Noah Forgotten (1997) (The Measure of Love continues the renovation), and The Contract (1999). In The Architect (2000), Hess designs a house -- and holds a compass, another measuring device (Hess turns the less precise paintbrush into one) -- and in White Wash (1998), heís working around the house he built. He carries a ladder, as though to climb to the sky, while the woman is involved in more earthbound, banal, less dangerous activity. Hess is clearly a hard worker, and his pictures are laborious, elaborate constructions. The carpentry tools call attention to Hessí technical expertise and flawless execution. But Hessí objects are always fraught with hidden -- not to say subversive (and sometimes self-subversive) -- meaning: The tools have a peculiar affinity with those in Albrecht DŁrerís Melencolia I (1514) -- they certainly have the same uncanny symbolic function -- suggesting that Hess also suffers from artistís melancholy. Like the winged figure in DŁrerís engraving, the winged Hess -- for his arms are spread like wings -- exists unstably between heaven and earth. Hess reaches for the sky but his feet are planted on the ground -- but not so firmly, as his precarious position on the ladder indicates.
But DŁrerís angel is immobilized by despair -- lack of inspiration, according to standard interpretations -- while Hess is mobilized, his despair translated into risky activity. His figures are almost always in action, and in complicated relationships, suggesting that Hessí melancholy has as much to do with life as with art, that is, the peculiar position of art in life, and the difficult relationship of the artist to other people, especially those with whom he is intimate.
In Time, the painter steals a Rembrandt Self-Portrait, confirming Hessí commitment to the Old Masters -- and to self-portraiture. Hessí self-portraits, in fact, more than hold their own in the tradition of Northern Renaissance and especially German Protestant self-portraiture. It begins with DŁrer, develops through Rembrandt, and supposedly climaxes with Max Beckmann -- but Hessí intense self-portraits show that the tradition remains alive, ironically invigorated by its transportation to Southern California.
But Hessí severe self-portraits can hardly be regarded as hedonistically southern Californian -- laid-back representations of a laid-back self, as the clichť goes -- however much the Los Angeles urbanscape luridly appears in some pictures, for example, Firmament (2003). Unlike Italian Renaissance portraiture, which tends to idealize the sitter, the Germanic Hess (he spent five-and-a-half years studying at the Academy of Visual Arts in Vienna, working in particular with Rudolf Hausner, a member of the Fantastic Realist group, who, in Hessí words, used "a technically precise, tradition-based style, mixed with surrealist imagery") is incisively, even surgically realistic. Heís in search of real self-knowledge -- by way of art, which is a difficult way of gaining it (the artist may carefully observe and accurately represent his outer appearance, but that doesnít necessarily communicate his inner reality, nor give him access to it) -- rather than self-glorification (however much that occurs by way of his glorification of the artist).
In Mind, the painter is distracted from painting his self-portrait by the singing of a mocking bird, reviving in ironical form the ancient idea that art looks to nature for inspiration -- the Orphic bird is in effect the painterís muse, even as it mocks him. Thereís even more irony in the picture: For while art traditionally holds up a mirror to nature -- which includes the human nature that informs the self-portrait -- acknowledging its seemingly total dependence on it, art is also competitive with nature, as Hessí picture shows. So is the man-made world, pictured in the camping mirror attached to the dead tree behind the easel: dead to the everyday world, the painter is in tune with nature and himself -- torn between them, perhaps like Buridanís proverbial ass.
Hessí enthralling landscape clearly triumphs over the self-portrait in process, despite the portraitistís firm, rather tight (ham-fisted?) grip on his obviously phallic paintbrush. The self-portraitís smallness conveys the smallness the artist unconsciously feels in the presence of nature and its artfulness, demonstrated by the spontaneous creativity and self-expression of the bird. Ironically, the animal artist is much smaller than the human artist, but it has much more artistic class -- and looks somewhat classier than the rumpled, sweaty student artist -- especially because its art comes naturally. Is Hess suggesting that painting is spilling oneís seed inconclusively -- the self-portrait is unfiinished ("non finito"), conveying the difficulty and perhaps futility of artistic creativity, especially as a way of securing selfhood -- in contrast to using seed to create new life, as cyclically and thus as reliably as germinating nature does? Hessí macho painter holds onto his art for dear life, as it were, as though in defiance of the (female?) bird, which does what it does effortlessly while he must do what he does deliberately. Heís certainly working carefully in comparison to the carefree bird. The painter must learn the language of nature, which is inherently more lyric than any artistic language Ė thereís an old myth that suggests the genuine artist intuitively understands the language of animals, that is, is in touch with the intuitive animal in himself -- which is perhaps why animals appear in several of Hessí paintings, fish in Scales (2001), and a donkey in The Mistress and Her Donkey and His Donkeyís Voice (both 2003). The sadistic youths in Scales look like animals -- predatory animals -- suggesting the undertone of perversion and violence that haunts many of Hessí pictures. The unresolved tension in them -- a formal as well as narrative tension -- adds to the sinister atmosphere.
The donkey -- a sterile beast of burden and ironical sexual fun in Apuliusí The Golden Ass and Shakespeareís Midsummerís Night Dream (Bottomís Dream), among other acknowledged sources for Hess -- is also a surrogate self, symbolizing the sexual curiosity and intensity, not to say lust, so clearly evident in The Artist and His Daughter (where itís angrily stifled) and Riverbed (where itís hesitant and passive). The Importance of Gourdcraft, the Persian poet Rumiís ironical fable of two women, one a poor servant and the other her rich mistress, who ecstatically fornicate with a donkey -- the rich one doesnít survive the experience because she didnít use a gourd to prevent her innards from being penetrated by the donkeyís huge penis (and also as a prophylactic) -- is an even more important source of inspiration for Hess, as he acknowledges. For Hess fornication is invariably bestial -- and guiltless. Freud remarks that many men have trouble uniting animal lust and tender love -- the former is implicitly murderous, the latter is libido at its most considerate -- and lust seems to oust love in Hessí pictures, perhaps because love invariably involves the caring which is guilt, as Winnicott puts it, while lust is uncaring. And yet Hess clearly cares for his family -- heís built a house for them, as The Measure of Love shows, and shares many happy experiences with them, as The Measure of Life suggests.
He seems to be focused on them as much as himself, despite the fact that he portrays himself more often than them -- suggesting that his art is more important than they are, however important they clearly are to him: yet another conflict. Taken as a whole, Hessí works suggests that he is deeply divided against himself, however strong his artistic self -- which holds the parts of his psyche together, at least for the visual moment.
The donkey pictures also address womanís supposedly insatiable sexual desire, conveyed in yet another myth, the ancient fable of Pasiphaeís impregnation by a bull -- another ecstatic union of beauty and the beast (high and low, art and sex), as it were. In such fables the female beauty always desires the male beast, who is ready to fornicate with any female of whatever age, appearance and social station. That union produced the minotaur, alluded to in Picassoís Minotaurmachia (1936), which is among the reproductions on the wall behind Hessí daughter in The Painter and His Daughter. Mechanical reproductions of many masterpieces proliferate in Hessí paintings, in a way reminiscent of Rauschenbergís use of them. The Picasso appears together with Leonardoís Annunciation (1470s), Vermeerís Allegory of the Art of Painting (The Studio) (ca. 1670) -- the posing "muse" has been said to be Vermeerís daughter -- and a landscape by the 18th-century painter Jean-…tienne Liotard, showing his house and a tiny self-portrait. Hess fantasized that Liotard -- clearly a surrogate for himself, all the more so because Liotard was known for his pastel portraits -- would become his daughterís husband, reminding us of Freudís idea that the bestial id will find a way of getting what it wants to get. All these masterpieces deal, however indirectly, with the creative act -- which is implicitly a sexual act for Hess (and sex is certainly creative) -- and/or the artist. The Painter and His Daughter offers a miniature survey of the history of art, or at least of the art that has influenced Hess. Hessí pictures within a picture (which is an Old Master device) suggest another conflict -- between mechanical reproduction and "organic" painting, which is the fundamental conflict of modern art. Its history shows it moving away from painting towards mechanical reproduction -- epitomized by the newspaper on which Hessí daughter stands -- although painting is still clearly alive and well, however supposedly decadent: Hess suggests that the issue is their integration, which in his case means subsuming mechanical reproductions in painting. Hessí "quotations" of old masterpieces also make it clear that he is a learned, even erudite painter -- academic in the best sense of the word.
The donkey is proverbially dumb -- a dumb "ass," symbolizing the asininity of the artist, implying that he is a kind of fool or jester -- cleverly playing with conflicts, as it were, as though they could be managed by irony, if not dialectically reconciled. There is, in fact, a good deal of humor and wit in Hessí paintings, which sometimes verge on turbulent Rabelesian comedy, sometimes on self-deprecating black humor. The donkey symbol certainly evokes both -- as well as the artistís stubbornness, as in stubborn, kicking mule. Clearly Hess is not afraid to satirize himself -- which suggests a certain ego strength -- and the artist in general.
Hess doesnít have to be literally present to make his emotional conflicts and strong presence felt. Heís not afraid to reveal his anxious lust in person, but when his instincts become irrepressible and unchecked, he prefers to present them in disguised or symbolic form, identifying with the lusty donkey -- a somewhat different dumb animal than the songbird (trapped on the earth rather than able to fly in the sky like a free spirit). Neither creature is really so dumb, as the ready sexuality of the donkey and the ready creativity of the songbird indicate.
In Soul, Time and Fate (2005) and Generation (2003), Hess takes on the art world. In Soul, we see our young artist hero at his opening, showing the fruit of his labor -- is it his first show, as his broad, friendly smile and open face suggest? Itís the final stage in his Candide-like picaresque adventures. Heís busily ingratiating himself with the public, but he ignores the critic reading the sheet of paper on which heís no doubt made notes about the exhibition, suggesting that critics are unimportant, certainly compared to collectors -- buyers -- one of whom is probably the man in the business suit with which the ambitious young artist is shaking hands. They will determine his fate and future -- his fame and fortune -- like the curators or dealers in Fate. Are the works reproduced on the slides as good as the Old Master drawings hanging on the wall (themselves reproduced on the wall by the commercial artist the gallery is currently showing) -- one by Rubens of the Judgment of Paris, one by Michelangelo for the Last Judgment, both ironically reflecting and commenting on the scene? Will his figures be as anatomically accurate and emotionally intense -- heartfelt, as the transparency of the heart suggests -- as theirs? Itís not clear that they will; the curators or dealers -- theyíre the real critics -- are looking for works that will sell. If they think they can, they will be exhibited. Why shouldnít they think this way? (Although itís not clear whatís in their minds, however clearly serious they are.) After all, weíre in the backroom of a gallery. Art today is part of commercial culture, not classical or Christian culture. The questions raised by the sheet of transparencies is moot. Theyíre questions Hess probably asks himself, but the sheets of slides are really in question.
In Generation, the studly young artist is about to bank his sperm, and seems to be sexually interested in the older nurse. She seems indifferent to him; heís just another donor. Yet sheís subliminally interested; the clock ticking behind her head suggests that her fertile years are running out. In typical double entendre fashion, Hess satirizes the creative and sexual acts, which are always implicated in one another -- dialectically inseparable -- for him. Itís a wonderful dream condensation. But the larger point of the picture, at least as I see it, are the juxtapositions of radically different -- indeed, irreconcilable -- ideas and works of art. On the one hand, thereís the reproduction of the Warhol Campbell Soup Can label on the artistís sweatshirt -- a reproduction of a reproduction. On the other hand, thereís the "real" painting of the fleshly, lascivious female nude, her luminous body -- especially her curving buttocks -- highlighted in the darkness, making it all the more attractive. The workís a brilliant update of Carvaggesque tenebrism. The nude is the mistress in Hessí The Mistress and the Donkey, and she hangs from the wall in a bit of gallows humor.
Sheís certainly out of place, and so is painting. In the corner between them, and incorporating features of both -- reproduction and nudity -- is the equally rectangular cover of a pornography magazine, presumably meant to arouse the artist so that he can masturbate into the little container the nurse has on her tray. If that doesnít work, thereís a video disc with more pictures of seductive female nudes, as the sheet of images on which it partially rests suggests.
The nurse is in hygienic, virginal white, with protective latex gloves -- another Hess double entendre, for they suggest a scum bag, to use the vernacular. Sheís a hygienic "real life" female presence, altogether remote from the world of the magazine cover -- but will she help him masturbate if he canít discharge (as her professional gloves suggest)? Sheís also remote from Hessí painting and the large Campbell Soup Can label, although the small container formally echoes its shape. Masturbation is implicit in the painterly splotches that soil the artistís dungarees, suggesting yet another contrast: between Hessí realism and Abstract Expressionism.
Thereís a five way contrast: between "pure" mechanical reproduction, represented by the magazine cover; "pure" painting, represented by the "dirty" dungarees; the trendy "artistic" use of mechanical reproduction, represented by Warholís ironical appropriation -- flippant quotation -- of the Campbell Soup Can label (suggesting that making art means labeling oneself); the facile re-appropriation of the representation of the familiar label by the popular culture, represented by the decorative use of the Warhol reproduction on the sweatshirt (an ironical example of avant-garde chic); and Hessí realistic painting, seemingly old-fashioned, whatever its mythopoetic and symbolic implications, but looming above all the other images, and certainly more vivid than the faded sweater reproduction. Hessí painting seems to win the war, but it may be a Pyrrhic victory, for thereís only one painting and many mechanical reproductions in the room.
It is a subtle esthetic and emotional victory, but then the vulgar esthetics and commonplace emotions of popular cultureís mechanically reproducible imagery speak more to the issue at hand. The young artist seems to have put painting behind him, as his position of Hessí work implies, while the mechanically reproducible, dime-a-dozen pornographic images, suggestive of the mechanical character of masturbation, beckon in front of him, ready for ritual use. Thereís no way that high art can have the same practical use as pornography. Who ever masturbated in front of Rembrandtís Bathsheba or Titianís Venus of Urbino or Goyaís Maja Desnuda? Or Hessí mistress, about to be skewered by her donkey lover? Such works donít have the same crowd appeal as pornographic imagery, because their sublime, self-conscious esthetics gets in the way of whatever unconscious fantasies they may arouse. And their age-old, subliminally tragic aura goes against the grain of the slick look of pornographic imagery, with their eternally young nudes, made for a quick fix, not reflection. To use Winnicottís term, they offer ego orgasms, not just id orgasms. (Hess seems to think they afforded both. The Titian and Goya may have been the Playboy centerfolds of their day. But our centerfold nudes are vulgar creatures rather than aristocratic ladies. Playboy magazine is affordable by everyone; only royalty can afford Titian and Goya.)
Thereís no way the old look of art can compete with avant-garde art, which is always looking for a new look -- which is part of the point of Time. Weíre in a museum, and behind our artist hero is a junk heap of art -- a crazy composite of Duchampís bicycle wheel, perhaps the most iconoclastic work of avant-gardism, and a white marble arm with a sword, representing heroic traditionalism, and, presiding over this whole winged monster -- clearly a hybrid of contradictory creative urges -- two empty frames, suggesting the pathetic, abandoned position of painting. Duchampís found object brings up the rear of the grotesque creature, suggesting that avant-garde art has become retardaire -- although the tail still seems to have the power to wag the beast, which rides on it -- while the classical statue vigorously charges ahead, ready to defeat any enemies in its path. I canít help thinking of the statue in Mozartís Don Juan, who tells the philandering Don Ė heís a perpetually dissatisfied lover, always looking for a new woman the way the avant-garde artist is always looking for a new style -- hat heís about to go to hell. Itís a very postmodern point: Now that modernism is over, institutionalized and decadent -- and now that no mode of art has priority over any other (theyíre all "historical") -- traditional painting is making a comeback, and in fact looks fresher and better than ever, and even more subtle, intense and original than modernist painting. In fact, for Hess modernist works seem to be infantile jokes, as the Minimalist cube -- a toy building block -- on exhibition in the foreground suggests.
But Hessís real bete noir is Pop Art, as the large Lichtenstein on the back wall implies. For Hess, Lichtenstein and Warhol -- the Campbell Soup Can label in Generation reappears in the painting closest to the spectator in the gallery depicted in Soul (appropriately, since Warhol said that art was about making money, galleries are where art is sold for money and, according to Warhol, making money is a high art) -- are both fake artists making fake works of art -- simulated works of art. The comic strip paintings of Pop Art lack the organic authenticity and emotional depth of Old Master painting, including Hessí New Old Master painting. For Hess, Pop painting is a jaded corruption of painting, just as avant-garde art is an ironic corruption of art, and Hess wants to undo the corruption, although he knows he can never completely do so, because it is a symbol of the dominant mass culture. Hidden behind Hessí mockery of Pop Art is fear of being a fraud -- a con artist, as he thinks Pop artists are (particularly Warhol).
Perhaps the key to understanding Time is the sculpture of Mercury -- the messenger of the gods -- by Giovanni Bologna in the backroom. The darkly glistening figure of the god parallels the figure of the mortal artist, brightly dressed in red sweater and blue dungarees. Theyíre more or less in the same position, although the artistís arms close around the Rembrandt Self-Portrait while the godís arms move in free flight. Bolgonaís sculpture and Rembrandtís painting represent all that Hess loves and aspires to -- all that is sacred in art -- while Duchampís sculpture and Lichtensteinís painting are profane art, which is why he despises them. Nonetheless, Hess uses profane realism to represent the sacred moments of life, for he knows we live in a profane world with little or no sense of the sacred, let alone of the sacredness of art. Thus the large, gross Lichtenstein overwhelms the small, subtle Rembrandt and displaces the Bologna to the distant sideline, just as simplistic pornographic imagery displaces Hessí complex erotic painting in Generation.
"Objectivity" is always implicit in "non-objectivity" -- which for Kandinsky meant something that was driven by "subjective necessity," that is, the search for emotional verisimilitude. Hess realizes this; his paintings are intensely subjective abstract compositions informed and mediated by a literary imagination. He realizes that the postmodern task is to re-integrate what modernism disintegrated, making for a new imaginative art.
More particularly, Hessí paintings integrate modernist and mannerist methods of construction -- the art historian Arnold Hauser argued that mannerist discordia concors is the root of modernism (like mannerism, it has a healthy respect for absurdity) -- to represent the "meta-narratives" of the modern life world. That is, itís obsession with sexuality (in lieu of sublimity) and what the sociologist David Riesman called the lonely crowd, unconsciously eager for community but rarely able to achieve it, as work after work makes clear. Thereís almost always a jarring, odd man out or out of place figure in Hessí pictures, suggesting that people donít really connect well, which is why an aura of loneliness haunts even his most cozy gatherings. LíOrange Sauvage (1995), Performance (1997), The Pissing Boy (1998), Initiation (1999), are examples, and so is, I venture to say, Mothers on the Mount (1999), for the male figures are outsiders in a womanís world, which is the way Hess may feel at home. The result is what might be called a Mannerist Humanism, if one needs a label: imaginative, self-conscious representations of human life whose formal tensions symbolize, underscore and dramatize unconscious, seemingly absurd feelings -- conflicted feelings that seem out of place, "inappropriate" and maladaptive in the everyday world of consciousness, with the superficial civility that passes for harmony -- thus making the inarticulate articulate and cognizable, however subliminally.
Hessí pictures are radiantly -- and disturbingly -- beautiful. Their formal tensions -- the stress inherent in their structure -- confirm the philosopher Francis Baconís assertion that there must always be something strange -- disquieting?, unnerving?, fantastic?, bizarre? -- in the harmony of beauty to make it convincing. Is this why mannerist beauty, which emphasizes strangeness at the expense of harmony, even as it creates harmony out of strangeness, is the most distressing, uncanny, convincing, authentic and meaningful beauty, at least to modern eyes? In short, just as Hess cannily represents figures in their lifeworld, so his formal tensions uncannily represent the strange, often morbid unconscious feelings that inform his figures and their relationships. There are two kinds of sensitive consciousnesses at work in Hessí paintings, the ruthless consciousness of an empirical observer of the lifeworld and intuitive consciousness of the inner world. To use William Jamesí distinction, Hess is flexibly tough-minded and tender-minded, which is why his pictures are masterpieces of emotional as well as perceptual insight.
Letís look closely at the formal structure that underpins Hessí narratives and gives them their unconscious resonance and energy, that is, that carries the deep emotions evident in the narratives even more than their symbolism. The Painter and His Daughter is exemplary: Curving flesh and angular objects counteract and interact, suggesting dialectical urgency but unresolved harmony. We see the same complex oppositional structure -- emotional as well as formal -- in The Thief, which is, in effect, an Annunciation. The Painter and His Daughter clearly derives from it, as the relationship of the virginal, horizontal, sleeping girl -- the artistís daughter a few years younger and sexually unaware -- and the artist on the diagonal ladder indicate. The Painter and His Daughter is more explicitly mannerist in its oppositions, even as it struggles to achieve the "dynamic equilibrium" that the pioneering abstractionists thought was the only harmony possible in the modern age. Hessí constructions are unstably balanced in the best modernist manner, even as they dramatize oppositions in the best mannerist style. Hessí irregularly curvaceous adolescent daughter, slowly but irreversibly emerging into young womanhood if not yet seductively voluptuous, stands on the open, rectangular and "regulated" pages of a newspaper. A spoof on Botticelliís idealistic Birth of Venus (ca. 1482), or the realistic truth about the fate of beauty in the modern world? The flat newspaper replaces Venusí rounded shell, suggesting that Hessí daughter is "news" -- certainly her naked appearance in his daring painting is -- and that her body, of which heís freshly aware, is "new." But the newspaper also implies that she might end up as a photograph in a pornographic magazine, which seems to be the fate of all modern Venuses, as Generation suggests.
The sagging folds of Hessí aging flesh -- it looks like rotting gristle -- and his intense, "I dare you to say something" gaze at the spectator, confirm his defiant animality, even as the handful of brushes -- which should he choose? -- in his fist suggest the difficulty he had deciding to paint, and finally painting, his naked daughter. Incest raises its tabooed head -- but then, itís just a picture of the artist and his model, and what better model than one he knows well, at least emotionally, even if she remains mysterious, a symbol of the eternal feminine that draws us on, as Goethe said in the final stanza of Faust. And Hess is indeed Faust and Mephistopheles rolled into one -- Faust, an aging academic jaded by his learning and wanting to renew himself by having every experience imaginable, taste every fruit, however forbidden, in a bid to restore freshness and meaning to his life, if not exactly the innocence of youth, and the devilish, creative Mephistopheles, who does Faustís bidding. Creating art is Hessí way of almost having it all, however socially unsavory that all may be.
Hess tells me that the hard black box on which his daughter sits is a coffin containing a corpse, suggesting that she is a symbol of rebirth, just as the soft red comforter is a symbol of her sexuality and a projection of Hessí desire for her. But theyíre both sublimated and transformed -- justified and legitimated -- by the exquisite works of art, setting all right emotionally and socially, behind his daughter. Perfectly calm in the reproductions that petrify them, they form a geometrical display that conveys Hessí perfectionism. Their arrangement also suggests that eternal geometry -- a high art in itself -- is the only way to contain, stabilize and transcend eternal instinct, which is always troublesome and rebellious, as Hessí fierce appearance indicates. The masterpieces on the wall behind the daughter are a kind of artistic Aufhebhung, to use the Hegelian word -- a raising and repeal, lifting and suppression all in one -- of Hessí sexual desire for his daughterís body. They remind him of why he is painting it, and remind her that she will become a work of art, her nakedness no longer of prurient interest but of esthetic interest.
The daughter is clothed in the Vermeer, the Picasso, the Leonardo. Whether daughter of the artist, daughter of the Minotaur or daughter of God, sheís now in her proper transcendental -- artistic, sacred -- place. Sheís been "spiritualized" in the background art, however much our eye is drawn to her exciting body: The emotional paradox matches the formal paradox. Hessí handful of brushes suggest that heís a prickly character -- itís also an ironically swashbuckling gesture, as though he were holding a sword that unfortunately shredded as he was about to use it (weíre a long way from the big phallic brush -- indicative of youthful potency Ė- the artist holds in Mind) -- and the fact that his daughter is listening to music through a headset suggests that sheís turned off and bored by him. Sheís passively enduring the ordeal of being painted -- which may be her way of denying her feelings for her father -- rather than actively participating emotionally, as Hess clearly is.
The tight mechanical curve of her disc player and the meandering curve of the attached cord contrast with the organically growing interwoven curves of her body, just as the angles the brushes make contrast with the pathetically wild "drapery" of Hessí shadowy flesh. Similarly, the sweeping, organic, open curve of the palette, with its "gestural" mess of colorful pigments, contrasts with the self-contained, angular newspaper page as well as the mechanical reproductions on the wall. The alpha and omega of creativity is suggested: Hessí painting is still in process -- he dips repeatedly, as the repeated brushes suggest, into the womb-shaped palette -- while the finished works on the wall are "established" in the pantheon of masterpieces, as the mass reproduction that ironically trivializes them indicates. But the simplest formal tension is the most emotionally telling: The wall is half gloomy shadow, half pure white light.
This reminds us of the brilliant interplay and examination of light and darkness in all of his Hessí paintings -- all one has to do is look at his and his daughterís body to see it -- and of the symbolic meaning of their conflict. They are eternal competitors for the human soul, suggesting the unresolved conflict in Hess.
But the opposing planes of the background wall -- the luminous plane like a blank canvas, and the shadowy plane, earth-colored as though it had been splattered by dirt (it suggests the "earthiness" of the girlís body, as well as Hessí down to earth realism) -- are irreconcilable. A sharp line divides them, just as the branches of the tree in Riverbed separate Hess, dressed in a black suit -- heís shoeless and his feet are dirty with earth -- and the luminous woman in the white slip, looking skyward. It is a decisive separation, for how is Hess to disentangle the woman from the tree without destroying both? The muse is hard to reach, intercourse is hard to accomplish -- even though the museís vagina, the entrance to her fertile womb, is visible through the folds of her slip -- which is perhaps why the watchful Hess is dressed in antagonistic black.
Light and dark -- art as a bright light in the everyday dark -- is a basic issue of Hessí painting, as Fresnelís Boots (2003) makes explicit. It is subtly evident in the different lights in The Measure of Love -- soft natural outdoor light (it seems to be dusk), soft artificial indoor light and blazing floodlight (pure white light rather than yellowish incandescent light). Fresnel was a French lens maker whose innovative lenses made light visible for miles, and Hessí painting of the lighthouse, in which one of Fresnelís lens is installed -- it amplified a 1500 watt bulb so that it could be seen for miles -- is an homage to him. Fresnel was clearly a master technician, like Hess, and the secret of his lenses has not been uncovered, though the memory of him lives on, if in pitiful form, as the boots -- so much for recognition and immortality -- in Hessí picture. Fresnel extended light infinitely, as it were, reminding us of its universality and necessity, and helped it triumph over darkness -- the lighthouse creates a space of living light in the dead darkness (latent in Hessí picture) -- which is what Hess hopes to do with his art, which casts a sharp light on the darkest emotions in human life. The concentric circles that form the lighthouse convey the concentrated character of its light, symbolizing the artistís and artís power of concentration. The circles contrast with the irregular curve of the shoreline, and the straight horizon line -- another unresolved geometrical opposition.
I could go through work after work, showing the ingenious compound of structure and meaning -- psychosocial meaning conveyed through paradoxical form -- in Hessí painting. But Hessí ingeniously multilayered paintings exist to make a human point, which returns us to the question that Hess forces on us: What is humanism? Light, Firmament, Mind, Generation, Fate, Time and Soul form a sequence that Hess calls "The Seven Laughters of God." Their source is apparently an Egyptian creation myth, as Hess tells us. "When God Laughed, seven gods were born to rule the world. When he burst out laughing there was light. When he burst out laughing the second time the waters were born; at the seventh burst of laughter, the soul was born." Presumably, the artist is God, and Hessí seven paintings are acts of creative laughter -- even though, in his ironically self-deprecating way, Hess has compared them to the images in Hogarthís Rakeís Progress, implying that his young artist is a rake making his way from creative freshness and naivetť to art world decadence and sophistication.
But what does the Egyptian creation myth have to do with human beings and humanism? Nothing. Itís about the gods, not human beings. Where are they? Nowhere -- the human soul is the last laugh, but where is the body to make it even more laughable? But Hessí paintings are profoundly humanistic -- heís turned the creation myth into a story about the ironies and folly of human creativity. And what is the point of human creativity? Is it to make art, as Hess does? I donít think so, and I donít think Hess thinks so. The creation of art is a means to a more broadly human end: The maximizing of being human, which is an ongoing goal that can only be achieved with the help of and through other human beings -- more pointedly, by reconciling oneself to their existence and difference from oneself, thus establishing a relational harmony or balance of emotional forces with them.
I am suggesting that Hessí paintings are about his -- and everyoneís -- ceaseless struggle to overcome inner and outer conflict, achieving what W. R. D. Fairbairn calls mature dependence with no loss of creative independence. "The words Ďhumanistí and Ďhumanismí are hard to define," the Kleinean art critic Adrian Stokes writes. "Whatever may be meant, I am convinced that a desideratum for the humanist is an environment stimulating awareness of otherness in harmony with hopes of an integrated object, outer as well as inner."(1) Hess is acutely aware of others, and his works show his struggles to integrate them into his creative independence without denying his profound dependence on them. I think thatís the larger -- larger than sexual -- point of The Painter and His Daughter. I think Hess is most successful in his effort to integrate art and life -- establish reciprocity between his creativity and his family -- in The Measure of Love. In that picture, his family appears as a facilitating environment, as Winnicott calls it, supporting his art and creativity. He seems to recognize them as integrated subjects in their own right, however uncreative they may be, that is, despite the fact that they donít make art and thus are all too human rather than extraordinary human beings: They accept their place on earth rather than aspire to be gods. But then they seem to enjoy life -- the daughter in The Measure of Life clearly does -- while Hess seems to enjoy making art more than life, implying that he only feels fully human, indeed has the strength to acknowledge his vulnerable, troubled humanity, when he does so.
But then he makes art to domesticate his instincts, so that he can fit into his family, however uncomfortably. Domestic relationships -- more particularly, the elusiveness of domestic harmony and happiness, always hard to achieve, however much they seem within easy reach -- are at bottom the theme of Hessí paintings. His work is an attempt to gain insight into domestic life by representing its private dramas. More generally, his paintings represent the vicissitudes of the domestic family in the modern world, where the nuclear or core family is in the process of disintegration because of collective forces beyond its control. Hess sometimes uses the extended family of friends and community to suggest the universality of family problems. He seems to want to preserve the family, but his own intensity Ėb arely controllable feelings -- threatens to tear it apart. Hess contradictorily shows himself as the linchpin of the family, holding it in place but about to fall out of place himself. He is an integrative and disintegrative presence at once, conveying his ambivalence about family life, which sometimes seems claustrophobic and inhibiting, at other times a safe haven in an indifferent world. Hess seems stuck on the horns of this emotional dilemma. The magnificence of his paintings has to do not only with their mannerist intricacy and modernist colors -- bright planes of intense color deepened with Old Master shadow and the luminosity that always miraculously emerges from it, if never completely conquering it -- but with the artistic conviction and profundity with which he represents the ups and downs, ins and outs, of the most intimate, difficult, unavoidable relationships in life.
† (1) Adrian Stokes, "The Invitation in Art" (1953), Psychoanalysis and Art: Kleinean Perspectives, ed. Sandra Gosso (London: Karnac, 2004), p. 122
DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.
This essay was originally published in slightly different form in the catalogue for "F. Scott Hess: The Seven Laughters of God," Jan. 5-Feb. 25, 2006, at Hackett-Freedman Gallery in San Francisco. The exhibition "F. Scott Hess: The Seven Laughters of God and Other Paintings" is currently on view at the Laguna Art Museum, Mar. 12-May 28, 2006.