F. Scott Hess: Art and Autobiography | KCET
F. Scott Hess: Art and Autobiography
F. Scott Hess is one of Los Angeles's -- and indeed America's -- most unique and prolific figurative painters working today. Deeply influential, frequently controversial and yet profoundly under-recognized, Hess's emotionally fraught, allegorical narratives have captured the attention of audiences and collectors for decades with their stylized archetypes of modern human experience that combine private iconography with the stylistic aesthetic stance and elevated craftsmanship of classical art history.
Now filmmakers Shirin Bazleh and Susan Carney are nearing completion on a documentary feature following Hess through three monumental years in both his life and his career. "F. Scott Hess: The Reluctant Realist" centers around the truly epic making-of, behind-the-scenes tale of the seven-year process that produced Hess' landmark exhibition "The Paternal Suit: Heirlooms from the F. Scott Hess Family Foundation" -- a sprawling mixed media installation with a twist that debuted at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art in Charleston in the Fall of 2012, before traveling to regional and university museums across the country -- including the Long Beach Museum of Art in 2014.
"The Paternal Suit" consists of over 100 paintings, prints, and objects entirely created and produced by Hess, but presented as an archive of legitimate historical artworks and artifacts, complete with supporting photographs and seemingly official documents. The truth about the collection's origin was never kept a secret, but the literature explains that "each object and artwork bears an artist's name and detailed provenance and has been executed in the style of the century from which it supposedly originates." Sculpture, ceramics, furniture, toys, newspaper clippings, historic photographs, guns and costumes advance the story. Hess does not claim authorship for the works on display. Instead, he ascribes them to fictional artists, referring to himself as the Director of the F. Scott Hess Family Foundation. The ultimate subtext for the installation, however, is the artist's attempt to reconcile his feelings upon reuniting with his biological father some 32 silent years after the man's abrupt departure from the family home.
After searching for and re-establishing contact with his father, Hess began learning about his ancestral patrilineage from 17th century England, to the earliest colonial settlements in South Carolina and Georgia, where family members eventually became key players in the Civil War. Hess ended up traveling through the South with his own teenage daughter, through these lands of their recently discovered, real yet still unreal, family history. By the time the Halsey show was realized, this estranged father was on his deathbed in a city not far from the Charleston location. He died during the course of the show, shortly after Hess made the trip to see him. Bazleh had an up close and personal view of all of this as it unfolded because she and Hess have been close family friends for a long time, maybe even decades.
An accomplished documentary filmmaker and reality television editor by profession, Bazleh said the idea to film him started out simply enough. "He has this wonderfully dark sense of humor, and he makes a great protagonist," he says. "I really just wanted to explore his general creative process, his character -- to answer the question of what kind of person makes art like his. We didn't know it would take years. And who could foresee the synchronicity. Tracing the ancestry of a partly mythological family, only to find your real one. Watching an artist process these events through the perspective of his imagination, creating a true masterpiece out of his experience, only to have that father die on the very eve of the show's unveiling -- it's positively Shakespearean. I could not have invented such a story line."
At the Halsey's behest, Bazleh's crew made a lively and engaging short film using what they'd already shot to accompany the "Paternal Suit" exhibition. "But in light of everything that happened," Shirin explained, "we became intent on extending the short film into a documentary feature. We've expanded its perspective to examine the context of the Los Angeles art scene, and where Hess stands in the contemporary art world."
He had a major retrospective at Barnsdall's Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery in late 2014, and a concurrent blockbuster show of new work at his gallery, Koplin del Rio in Culver City in early 2015. The Long Beach Museum enthusiastically hosted "Paternal Suit's" L.A. appearance to great acclaim, notably being named one of Art Ltd.'s top museum shows of 2014. So then why, Shirin wondered, isn't Hess in MOCA, LACMA, The Broad? One theory is about the dominance of abstraction, pop and conceptualism in the past half-century -- figurative painting with literary symbolism, not so much. But all signs indicate that this genre's time has finally arrived, along with a reinvigorated appreciation for its modern masters. In that context, Hess' stories are more timely and true than ever.
Visit the Indiegogo campaign for Shirin Bazleh and Susan Carney's documentary "Reluctant Realist" here.
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