The Emporium Center Presents Two Challenging Exhibits by Local Artists Nick DeFord and Jean Hess

I remember being told in school that the letter "A" evolved from an ancient pictograph of an animal's triangular head with horns. Like most ideas addressed in the classroom, it's an assertion we assumed was true; it seems no one acknowledged that things in this world need not be proven factual to be worthy of in-depth consideration. That said, we must question what there is to learn if all that seems to matter is what we know to be true. Artists Nick DeFord and Jean Hess are truth seekers, not necessarily truth tellers, and that's a noble calling.

Employing different modes of approach, DeFord and Hess explore the meaning and visual impact of deceptively familiar scenes and symbols, filling the Emporium's balcony gallery and vestibule with thought-provoking art. Their embellished found objects and collage pieces, currently on view alongside paintings by Marcia Goldenstein, make for an intelligent and unusual group show.

In addition to larger canvases, Goldenstein and Hess exhibit an impressive number of small-scale works that invite close inspection yet nevertheless function as a whole, and DeFord offers up an absurdly named collection of 10 constructions called Alleged Posthumous Writings. DeFord's pieces are simultaneously thoughtful and tongue-in-cheek, and his use of unexpected materials—strips of embossed plastic label tape and colorful thread or fabric applied to the kind of framed but worn embroidery found in thrift stores—results in a quirkiness realized in form as well as content.

Despite obvious risk-taking and not taking himself too seriously, DeFord projects the confidence of a man with a plan. His "Talking Board" series of tightly structured paintings incorporates typography without the burden of words, whereas stitched pieces containing phrases are more like pages in a narrative.

So what might DeFord's objectives be? If nothing else, he highlights the point of convergence where what's expected shifts shape, forcing a fresh perspective. His found embroidery pieces alter folksy and well-intentioned craft by superimposing words cut from fabric or tearing out thread. A precious still life of tulips and daffodils is incomplete, perhaps cynically defaced or left unfinished due to someone's death. DeFord's "whited out" stitchery depicting docked sailing vessels alludes to things outmoded. Either way, Granny's handiwork might never look the same.

Hess' art has so much going on, it's hard to begin describing it. Her methods have remained constant for years, involving a layering of intricate imagery, pressed plants, bits of text, and paint, ink, graphite, and resin, followed by the labor intensive process of applying multiple coats of Liquitex matte medium to achieve her signature gloss finish. I've described her interest in the discipline of taxonomy in a past review, and Hess continues to be an artist/biologist of sorts, although her identification and classification of components of her work (however knowledgeably utilized) relies on presumably self-imposed criteria.

On the east-facing side of the gallery, Hess exhibits 38 8-inch-by-8-inch canvases that, in terms of color, project the essence of a paradisaical garden. Defining collage as "a metaphor for remembering and re-creating", she imposes on each piece a grid that acts as a delineating device. The central portion of most canvases features trees surrounded by other motifs—flowers, leaves, water, shelters, spheres, and maps. As trendy as the use of maps by artists has become, according to art critic Carly Berwick of ARTnews, Hess' work is more like the "analogue for painting" that art historian Svetlana Alpers attributes to 17th-century Dutch artists who yearned to "describe the world."

"[A] map's beauty lies in its limits, in its ability to focus attention, to shape perception," Berwick writes. In that sense, Hess not only includes sections of maps, she sees the grid as being an orienting device—a way of placing one's self within a certain context. The themes and specific elements frequently present in her work never seem tired. Instead, she's developed a rich visual vocabulary that's especially rewarding for viewers acquainted with her past efforts.

Hess' titles for various pieces alone could be bound into a sort of poetry chapbook, with some of the aforementioned 8-inch canvases labeled "Sojourn in This Land," "Day and Night Shall Not Cease," "Let There be a Firmament," and "The Shadow of Thy Wings." Complementing the small collages is Hess' "Remote Sensing" series of semi-large paintings that de-emphasize the grid—something I'd like to see her do more often.

All in all, DeFord's art could be regarded as evidence of mind play, and Hess' pieces revel in complex thinking. Yet it's the spirit beyond thought that pulls everything together. As for Hess, her ability to translate into art sharp intellect balanced by intuition and sensuousness is a rare gift—one that her art evidences time and again.