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Review: F. Scott Hess paintings at the Municipal Art Gallery

Since the late 1970s, F. Scott Hess has been painting what might be called the everyday dysfunctions of modern life. Sometimes it takes on epic scale, as in a sprawling scene of Disneyland visitors fleeing an approaching storm that seems more a squall of cultural rot than a cloudburst signifying inclement weather.

Always, though, it’s the small detail – or the accumulation of them – that carries his pictorial narratives along.

A slip of paper is tucked into the back pocket of a gallery attendant in “Fate,” a 2005 picture showing several people engaged in the once common, now virtually obsolete act of perusing photographic slides of paintings in an art gallery’s inventory. What the paper slip might be is anybody’s guess; but its conspicuous presence in Hess’ composition is enough to make you think that surely it contains information meant to be remembered.

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The outcome – the fate – of the artistic transaction taking place in the gallery’s back room looms as unpredictable if not entirely unknowable, subject to myriad back-pocket mysteries.

At the Municipal Art Gallery in Barnsdall Park, 27 paintings plus a group of 32 individual portrait-panels, all made since 1978, survey Hess’ work. The show was organized by Mike McGee, director of the Begovich Gallery at Cal State Fullerton, where a like number of Hess’ paintings is also on view. (A conversation with the artist is scheduled for Barnsdall on Friday, March 7, at 7 p.m.) It charts his developing facility.

Hess, born in Baltimore in 1955, spent six years in Europe before moving to Los Angeles at 29. He had completed four years at Austria’s Academy of Fine Arts, where Rudolf Hausner, a founder of the post-World War II Vienna School of Fantastic Realism, was a primary influence. Fantastic Realism applied figurative techniques in Old Master painting to progressive social subjects. Running afoul of orthodox Surrealism for using judicious thought in a movement that prized irrationality, it also operated counter to the era’s promotion of abstract art. Either way, the movement is not widely known, especially in the United States.

Hess employs compositions, individual figures, palettes, literary sources and additional techniques familiar from Titian, Michelangelo, Durer, Courbet and countless others, as well as from popular culture. You’re more likely to find a direct quotation from Henry Fuseli or an allusion to Susanna and the Elders than “Law and Order,” but both are in there.

“Monopoly” (1985) is an early example. A cinematic aerial view shows four black men playing the title’s board game. Clutching play money and toy houses for Boardwalk, Park Place and the rest, each makes abject moves in an artificial model of an actual economic system that has historically excluded them.

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Look closely and the men’s colorfully patterned shirts are composed from celebrated Fauve, Cubist and Expressionist paintings. The Modernist masterpieces are all indebted to traditional African sculpture. Hess’ picture came hot on the heels of “‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art,” the controversial 1984 exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art tracing African and other influences on Matisse, Picasso, Kirchner and other European artists. The lurid color and vigorous brushwork of Hess’ gestural painting creates a non-narrative frame of optical nausea for the social calamity it infers.

Twenty years later, the nighttime painting “Light” (2005) shows how refined the artist’s technique has become, all while continuing ambiguous narrative content in a pointed dialogue between social conditions and art. A life-size policeman, gun holstered, wields a loaded paintbrush. He inscribes the word God in green pigment on the forehead of a stunned muralist, whose body is visually pinned against a landscape vista painted on a concrete wall in an urban wash beneath swooping freeway overpasses.

With its complex interplay between real and fictive spaces, social alienation and power, emblems of creation and destruction, beauty and bathos, “Light” refuses the simplistic closure of common pictorial storytelling. No mere police procedural, it frames the cinematic techniques of a detective story within a sophisticated layering of light.

The illumination is at once celestial and menacing, a beatific cosmic force and the grim specter of a patrolling helicopter. The muralist’s crimson shirt reflects in a ring of red-flecked beard-stubble on his neck. Acute observation of empirical visual fact is inseparable from a bloody emblem of the hangman’s noose, for a distinctive image of conflicted enlightenment.

Municipal Art Gallery, Barnsdall Park, 4800 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, (323) 644-6275, through March 16. Closed Mon. through Wed. www.lamag.org

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