F. Scott Hess' local debut introduces him as a native Midwestern painter, traditionally schooled in Vienna and electrically charged by Los Angeles, his new home. Figurative canvases painted in the two cities make the point that Hess has been mightily influenced by where he lives but that he remains solidly inclined toward demonic aspects of the whole universe.
The Vienna works are relatively small and dark, haunted by history and possessed by a fearsome undercurrent. A nude male model crouches on a stool in an unfurnished room while a pack of dogs runs through it. Sporadic fires illuminating a night street scene are ominous but less threatening than the fires burning in Hess' people. Even a couple of pastoral oils harbor the threat or aftermath of danger: "Pigs Before the Storm" has hogs walking a ritualistic circle while shadowy human characters hide in transparent sheds, and "Tatort Triptych" seems to be the site of a mass murder.
In Southern California, Hess found a hotbed of tropical verdure, vertiginous urban views, seething bars and sultry barbecues, all populated by ghoulish people who seem disturbed, depraved or exhausted. Here, despair doesn't hide in European bushes; it lights up in quivering flesh and lurid, neon color. These recent L.A. pictures take you hurtling back to American scene painting, then jerk you forward to everything from Alfred Leslie's eerie realist portraits to Leon Golub's terrifying expressions of torture and hooliganism.
Hess has jumped squarely into the Neo-Expressionist camp, but he brings to it an unusually strong grip on drawing and painting, as well as emotional fervor that feels authentic. Though he occasionally prods figures into a state of lumps and rivulets, these overheated paintings hold together through the sheer force of muscle, passion and pigment. Maintaining a high viewpoint, he looks down on his subjects while bringing them up so close you can smell their sweaty bodies, their barbecued steaks, Kentucky Fried Chicken, beer and smoldering cigarettes.
Hess' psychosociological view focuses on the art world's commercial machinations in one painting called "Monopoly." In it, a quartet of dark-skinned game players--four versions of the same man, really--wear shirts printed like paintings by Picasso, Matisse and Beckmann. Glaring as the message is, it's easy to miss because of the players' individual intensity. (Ovsey Gallery, 705 East 3rd St., to July 6.)