Having written Artbeat reviews for quite a while now, I’ve especially enjoyed following the work of individual artists not only throughout years, but also as it has appeared in a variety of exhibition venues. For instance, I’ve seen mixed-media pieces by Jean Hess in the Candy Factory, the Hanson Gallery, the Knoxville Museum of Art, the Emporium Building, the Knoxville Convention Center, and the University of Tennessee campus and Downtown Gallery. (The ever-prolific, Baltimore-bred Hess has mounted farther-flung shows as well, in Atlanta and Huntsville, Ala., among other cities).
Titled Collage as a Strategy For…, her latest exhibition is on view at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Kingston Pike through Nov. 1. Multimedia works in a range of generally subtle but distinctive colors belong to numerous series—coordinated pieces often utilizing either blatant or barely visible grids to impose order via an organization of disparate visual components.
As dominant as grids are in Hess’ many works, they manage to stay interesting, not functioning as some kind of crutch when it comes to her use of artistic resources. Hess’ other so-called devices are maps, spheres of all sizes, and dried plants preserved like earth-embedded fossils within layers of resin. Yet no matter how prevalent such elements are, pieces in Collage as a Strategy For… relate to so many things—and require for their realization so many different procedural steps—that any repetition is par for the course and not problematic.
At Hess’ recent artist’s talk in the T-shaped gallery of TVUUC, attendees listened intently as she described her motivations and her approaches to the works displayed—everything from large assemblages on wood to two dozen smallish pieces, some as small as greeting cards. In keeping with her breezy yet sophisticated style, possibly influenced by years spent living in New Mexico, Hess looked tanned and wore appliquéd denim. As befits her predilection for recognizing unexpected connections, she had copied the songbird image on cloth sewn to her skirt, introducing it into an included collage titled “Place 46 My Footsteps Slip Not.”
Hess’ talk first addressed the challenge of not allowing found objects to overwhelm the art she produces. Her remarks also acknowledged women artists’ long-term status as “bricoleurs” or “makers of quilts.” Concerning the latter, Hess has recognized an ongoing notion that women’s creative efforts are most valuable when applied within the domestic realm—as if artistic females should, more often than not, engage in scrapbooking or assembling children’s Halloween costumes. But with pieces in the collections of both major regional museums and various corporations, Hess is indeed a working professional artist. And as such, she benefits from remaining open to whatever methods might best communicate her ideas.
One of the current show’s most striking groupings is a pair of collages on wood titled “Found Lines 7” and “Found Lines 10,” incorporating century-old scribbles from school textbooks into meticulously crafted and assembled grids comprised of one-inch-square cutouts. “Found Lines 7,” a negative-scan version of its companion piece, is furthermore divided by what resemble tile borders like those found in institutional bathroom settings.
Adjacent to the aforementioned paired works are two pieces from Hess’ mosaic series. One, titled “Mica,” is remarkably luminous. With tiny squares of thin silicate minerals, it stands out because it’s among the least manipulated of the artist’s impressive repertoire of materials, despite its painstaking construction. At the other end of the spectrum are pieces laboriously layered with resin or acrylic paint, often dusted with dry metallic pigment obscuring all sorts of markings and maps and images with which Hess has started.
Examples of Hess’ older work, like the images that make up her Eden series, now seem a tad illustrative, even precious, when compared with more recent efforts. Nevertheless, “White,” from the mosaic series, with scant color marking its center, is exquisite, the artist’s equivalent of a baby’s kiss. Clearly, such series have necessarily served Hess to arrive at her latest offerings.
Speaking of which, Hess is at her best when the recognizable elements she uses in her collages (such as metal washers in “Eden: Watauga”) shed their identity, transcending any intended purpose to become purely visual aspects of an almost always intriguing whole. We can, incidentally, see more of Hess’ work when it becomes part of the Knoxville Museum of Art’s Contemporary Focus 2014 exhibition opening in February. Which means we’re lucky, as hers is a notable career to follow and enjoy.