Jean Hess explores the past at UTâ’s Downtown Gallery
by Matthew Blanshei
My kid could paint that.â” You used to hear it in galleries and museums, a succinct, derisive, and impatient dismissal of modern art. Itâ’s heard less often now, but Knoxville artist Jean Hess builds her part of the exhibit Reverie (also featuring Jeffery Morton) at the University of Tennesseeâ’s Downtown Gallery on works made at a time when the old, authoritative standards that made such statements possible were still in force. Today those standards are, for the most part, treated as objects of historical study, a turn of events evoked by the quotation from the Jungian analyst Robert Johnson that serves as the opening epigram to the artistâ’s statement which accompanies Hessâ’s current exhibit: â“[M]any people use the energy of their nostalgiaâtrying to get back to a previous state of grace, back to childhood. This is not possibleââ”
While the ellipses found at the end of that quotation are perhaps meant to suggest Hessâ’ work will find a more fruitful way to put nostalgic energies to use, they seem also to announce that she has come up with a singular way to actually document, or to reveal, why it is impossible to return to what is essentially an imaginary condition.
Hessâ’ works are particularly well-suited to do so because the form and content of her mixed-media paintings reinforce one another in a way that exposes the passage of time on three different levels: the compositional history of the work itself; the relation between the work and the tradition of Western art; and the historical distance that separates the current exhibition from the time and place where the ready-made materials used in the paintings originated.
These relationships become clearer if we see how, in a work like â“Tangent,â” traces of the succeeding layers of clear resin and thin washes of acrylic that were used in the stages of composition can be found in the paintingâ’s final form. (Hess regards that final form as â“a document of sorts that includes documentary information collected as part of the creative process.â”) What gives the history of this painting its distinctive character is the faded handwriting embedded in its deepest layer. The dated character of what are in fact the original pages of childrenâ’s school notebooks glued onto treated wood is heightened by the fact that they appear to lie beneath several planes of pale colors. While these merging color patterns are marred by clusters of dark turquoise erosions, splotches created by using small amounts of dry metallic pigment, the most jarring aspect of the work is created by the addition of hand-painted flowers cut from paper and then pasted onto the surface.
The end result is that the work shows not only its actual age but also its indebtedness to a modern art tradition that includes the soak-staining method Helen Frankenthaler mastered in her abstract expressionist paintings, the Dadaist use of ready-made materials, and the Surrealist juxtaposition of incongruous images.
And what might the contrast between the faded handwriting from a 100-year old notebook with a cut-out drawing of a flower tell us about our relation to the past? Hereâ’s one possibility: it suggests the revolutionary ideas brandished by the leaders of the big modern art movementsâ"Abstract Expressionism, Dadaism, Surrealismâ"have lost their ability to help bring about the type of spiritual renewal and material prosperity that were promised to the children who wrote in those books at the beginning of the 20th century.
Hess describes the flowers that make up the last additions to her recent paintings as, among other things, â“gifts to the childrenâ"or a sort of commemoration.â” It seems like a strange gift to give to the children who really did provide the foundation for the painting. For that matter, it seems strange to think of giving them a gift at all. But this could be what Hess wants to convey: the glaring inadequacy of a present-day gift that, like an apology for slavery, can no longer be accepted or rejected. What does such a gift amount to? It looks a lot like an image of the past we give to ourselves in our failed attempts to either make amends for, or replace, what has been irretrievably lost.
What: Reverie by Jean Hess and Jeffery Morton
When: Through Nov. 2
Where: UTâ’s Downtown Gallery (106 S. Gay St.)
How Much: Free
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