As author Stephanie Yuhl observed in her book A Golden Haze of Memory: The Making of Historic Charleston, the foundation of Charleston's modern tourism economy rests on residents' fantasies of an idyllic antebellum past. It's an interesting topic, but it doesn't make Charleston, or the universal human impulse to "improve" one's ancestors, unique.
It does, however, frame the premier of F. Scott Hess' exhibit The Paternal Suit: Heirlooms From the F. Scott Hess Family Foundation as one of the most provocative events to hit the city this century. The exhibit opens at the Halsey Institute on Aug. 24, and what happens after that is anyone's guess.
Hess' six-year labor of creation wasn't imagined with Charleston in mind. Though themes of family and absence have been powerful forces in the development of his work, the Los Angeles-based painter's road to this exhibit began almost by chance in 2004 when he stumbled across clues to his family genealogy. Step by step, Hess uncovered a prominent and storied line of Georgia ancestors buried in his father's past. But as he searched, he learned something equally interesting: Upon closer examination, many of those family stories, even those documented in books, turned out to be remarkably questionable, if not utterly fictional.
The deeper he looked, the sillier things became. One tenuous family connection to a possible American ancestor in the early 1700s connected Hess to a royal line that extends back 2,000 years. "Suddenly I was connected to Norse Gods. To Odin. To Caesar Augustus," Hess says, breaking into a laugh on a Skype video call from his home in Echo Park. "At that point I realized, this is really absurd."
In 2005 he took the project's first formal steps, establishing the F. Scott Hess Family Foundation. But to understand the exhibit, as well as the story behind it, it's important to remember that everything it comprises, from its paintings to its historical objects to its catalog and its promotional materials, is a sly meditation on the selective unreliability of history. Hess himself slips in and out of character as he speaks, leaving it to the listener to track the transitions. One California observer compared the exhibit to an E.L. Doctorow novel, weaving the historical and the fictional in ways that blur both distinctions.
The result is a collection of about 100 paintings, objects, and historical ephemera "collected" by Hess for the foundation between 2005 and 2011. "The idea was to pull together works that told the 400-year history of my American family, but also to tell American history, and not just the rotten parts."
While in character, Hess speaks about the contributions of the exhibit's curator, Bella Menteur (his pen name for the catalog), and his redneck archaeologist-for-hire, Jim Hardy ("He goes around and digs things up for me"). Out of character, he talks about learning to sew, the joys of bidding for antiques on eBay, and the contributions of artist friends who helped him along the way.
"One way of thinking of this is that quote about how 'Art is a lie that gets at the truth,'" Hess says. "Picasso said that. At least I think he said it. Anyway, the history in this is truth as much as it can be, and the art is a lie that helps get at it."
Because his family history was rooted in Georgia, Hess held off on offers from West Coast museums in hopes of premiering the exhibit in the South. The Charleston connection came in 2010, when Hess met Halsey Director Mark Sloan during a three-day stint at the college. The Halsey impressed Hess, Hess impressed Sloan, and the two agreed more or less on the spot to work out a deal.
Though Hess has revealed a few pieces from the collection at a fundraiser, this is the first time they have appeared as one big art piece. He's particularly looking forward to observing the reactions of Charleston viewers. "The way people looked at this thing [at the fundraiser] sort of amazed me. There were people who were 100 percent accepting of what I gave them. So I'm interested to see how this resonates with people in this Southern venue."
If the work makes Hess controversial, it won't be the first time. As a figurative painter with chops that would have earned him fame in Renaissance Europe, Hess has been called a "magical realist," a "humanist mannerist," and a man "with one foot in the Old Master camp, while his other stands in the muck of Post Modernism." Hess accepts none of those labels willingly, and when the topic turns to the art world, he puts down his brush and picks up a scalpel.
With so much money and prestige bound up in enormous inventories of abstract art, critics, collectors, and dealers alike share an interest in maintaining the illusion of value. "The art world is fueled by money and corruption, just like our world as a whole," he says. "A few people control the auction houses. It's ripe for falling down."
The tyranny of abstraction has been so strong for so long now that many fine-art programs couldn't teach the skills required for figurative painting even if they wanted to. Yet today, with figurative art in California riding a rebellious backlash against the artistic establishment, Hess holds a teaching position at the Laguna College of Art and Design. His evocative paintings sell almost as quickly as they appear in local galleries, and students clamor to learn his techniques.
"It turns out these ideas about narrative painting that were lost for about 100 years are very useful. There's this sense now that you have to paint from life. I think that's bogus. You have to create a great painting. In failing to create movement in a painting, the paintings fail to move us."
Unlike his one-off paintings, the art of The Paternal Suit exists in the whole of the exhibit, and that includes the way it essentially pranks the viewer. "At the beginning, there's no clue. If they're paying attention, and that's a big if, they will hit certain objects that will set off alarm bells. What about this suit? What about history? What about art history?
"One of the sources of inspiration for this was ... local and state museums, and a lot of them are loaded with objects. So you see a wooden spoon on display and you think, why is this important? And then you read the placard and it says, 'This was the spoon that George Washington used' ... It suddenly has a different resonance. A museum can shift the importance of something dramatically."
He adds, "[Much of the art] that's presented in museums is crap. It's shallow and undeserving, but it's codified by museums. I think this exhibition in many ways points up to the way that works."
So on the one hand, The Paternal Suit hangs as if it were custom tailored for a Charleston audience. On the other, will residents famed for "eating rice and worshiping their ancestors" warm to a nose-tweaking exploration of the re-imagined past?
"I think I'm generally for the truth, no matter how ugly it is, and there are myths out there that can be very damaging," Hess says. "You can see that in our political system today. The things we've told ourselves about this country's founding have import later. I don't have any illusion that The Paternal Suit is going to change that. It's just important to me as an act to put that out there and to correct certain things, in a fashion that gets at the truth."