The Softer Side

Usually, the leering and big-pored creations of F. Scott Hess look like conniving Shar-Peis. His hyperrealistic canvases catch all manner of intrigue and darkness, and people always come out the worse for it. It's a world-view somewhat akin to the classic bitter wife who has been dumped for a newer model: man is creepy and cunning and underhanded, and deep down, people are as noxious as turned milk.

So why in "The Hours of the Day" at the Orange County Museum of Art does Hess suddenly look vulnerable, even loving, and almost soft? The subject matter hasn't changed. Pygmy clowns dance for the amusement of others; naked men are shackled like glistening beasts behind doors; babies are left like Moses to float away in baskets surrounded by water lilies. Everything still blows, but it's as devoid of moral judgment as a documentary on lions devouring their prey. It's just the natural order of things.

But then there are Hess' women. Sure, they leer under our gaze and the gazes of neighborhood kids peeping at them in the bath. But they're softer, their wrinkles subdued, their eyes big and limpid. Compared with his men, they're practically painted from behind a Vaselined lens. You can just see Elizabeth Taylor hawking her perfume from behind mountains of gauze.

"The Hours of the Day" comprises 24 paintings, like a medieval devotional. But here, God is as absent as The New York Times declared him. The cycle begins at 5 a.m. with Flood Plain. It's a feral painting in which a woman, biting on a piece of cloth, pulls a baby from her warm, wet, furry self with only a flashlight for company. It's an almost biblical solitude, but that's about as biblical as things get, unless your idea of biblical is Sodom and Gomorrah. From there, it's depravity and drunkenness set amid the warm comforts of the middle and upper-middle class, with goodness interrupting infrequently.

But when goodness does interrupt, it's in the form of women. The men creep along like ugly brine shrimp, but the women—the virgins, the whores and the madonnas—smile and pass the gnoshes. Hess doesn't make the mistake of idealizing woman as the repository of all that's good and nurturing like a Victorian poet. His women are sluts, too. But they look awfully fun.

The Open Window (8 p.m.) features a woman reading in the tub, water swirling into her navel. She leaves her book to look at the painter with eyes that would best be described as knowing. Outside her window, huddled in the cornstalks, two ill-lit boys peep in. She's shameless, and she glories in it. The boys, meanwhile, look almost retarded with their first taste of lust—"retarded" seeming to be one of Hess' favorite expressions. (If you want to know what his favorite vantage point is, that would be the particularly unflattering one in which you peer straight up someone's nostrils until he looks like the Phantom of the Opera.)

In Champagne (10 p.m.), a tousled woman in a wrinkled satin dress and pearls sits in a chair by a hotel bed. One nyloned foot rubs the other, arched in a spike heel. Her eyebrows look like snakes as she smiles at the viewer. On the bed, a man gazes at her, befuddled or discomfited. The remains of oyster shells and nuts clutter up a silver tray on a nearby table. There's nothing as juicy as a woman on the edge of middle age smirking and getting ready to fuck.

Hess has mothers, too, mild-eyed and passing the food. They've only got a hint of Shar-Pei to them, as opposed to the positively Bogart-esque men. And he has teenage girls who glow quietly, simultaneously oppressed and elevated by their ambiguous state. They don't know yet the beauty they already hold—but the creepy bald men peering at them over their shoulders do.

Let the men do their bad things. Let them abduct sleeping women from villas and piss in the sauna; let them pass out drunk on the lawn, their children unconcerned at their feet. Let them set babies adrift in the river and leer, shifty-eyed, while they plot like madmen. The women are off in their own world, where they never notice the lurking ones, and they're happier in their innocence. And when they aren't that innocent—when they set their lines in the waters, trawling for men who are helpless before them—well, then they're even happier.

"The Hours of the Day" at the Orange County Museum of Art, 850 San Clemente Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 759-1122; Through Jan. 6, 2002. Open Tues.-Sun., 11 a.m.-5 p.m. $4-$5; kids under 16, free; free for all on Tues.


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