‘Paternal Suit’

"Noah Forgotten" by F. Scott Hess (1995), oil on canvas.

Possibly it was his father, Eugene Nolan Jr., who punched the hole that artist F. Scott Hess would struggle to fill in myriad ways over time.

Nolan disappeared from his son’s life, then was found decades later with an inadequate ancestral memory. Hess, obsessed with genealogy and history, was left unsatisfied. But a solution soon presented itself.

He’s always been a storyteller of sorts, he said. Known primarily as a realist painter, his pictures include built-in narratives. He’s tried his hand at fiction writing, too. But Hess found his voice in 2005 when he established the F. Scott Hess Family Foundation and initiated his hunt for family artifacts in earnest.

With a family tree that extends far back to the 1634 settlement of Dorchester Bay in what would become Massachusetts, Hess has spent the past seven years finding and collecting objects, documents, photographs and stories in a tenacious effort to construct a historical narrative that may or may not be accurate.

But this is art, and accuracy isn’t the point.

“The Paternal Suit: Heirlooms From the F. Scott Hess Family Foundation” is a sweeping and mesmerizing exhibit at the Halsey Institute for Contemporary Art that runs through Oct. 6. Entering the galleries of the Halsey is akin to stepping into a weird time machine that propels you into the 17th century, then pulls you along a topsy-turvy incline to the present: from Puritan settlers to Iranian royalty, from witch trials to a portrait of the artist as a young man.

It works on the spectator-like theater, its characters sharing their experiences, armed with useful props, contributing loudly to a complex dialogue that seems to tell a fundamental story of America.

“ ‘The Paternal Suit’ is swollen by myth and impossible to wear,” states the epigraph of the excellent catalog that accompanies the exhibition. The book is a helpful companion to the show, providing the narrative accompaniment, though wall-mounted placards also describe the Hess history to spectators.

That history begins, more or less, with the Osgood, Fowler and Lord families arriving on the Mary & John and settling in Ipswich, Mass. Land grants, Hess contends, brought Thomas Osgood and his wife, Susanna Lord, to South Carolina, where, thanks to slavery, they grew rice and grew rich in Dorchester on the banks of the Ashley River.

The history winds its way through the Northeast and Southeast, illustrated by the most ingenious and strange objects Hess has collected (or perhaps manufactured and painted), including a large wooden hand with wagging finger mounted at the end of a long pole; a “learnin’ machine” or cage in which young, undisciplined students were tied so they might focus better on the lesson; a set of dueling pistols and faux shot; marionettes of Abraham Lincoln and Sen. Alfred Iverson of Georgia; a hand-painted secessionist bullhorn replete with teeth in the bell; and much more.

It’s almost as if Hess has organized a giant artistic con game, except that some of the history seems plausible and, in any case, there’s a certain humorous truth about it all. There were political fights and injurious duels and corporal punishment in school and awful civil war battles in real life, after all.

Hess might take his liberties — he is an artist — but the story he tells, a sweeping story that relates the contributions of extraordinary people (who may or may not have actually done these things, or even existed), is nevertheless one that might be deemed foundational.

The hand of Halsey Director Mark Sloan, who curated the show and edited the catalog, is evident, for Hess’ oddball romp is just the sort of strange and wonderful artistic adventure that Sloan loves to discover and promote.

The Halsey has become adept at organizing multifaceted exhibitions that flatter the eye and challenge the mind. Usually included is some sort of film, a beautiful book, special events and the presence of the artist. In this case, Hess was at the gallery Aug. 25 to give a tour of the show and deliver his historical monologue.

Some of those depicted in the latter part of his history were present, including his Iranian wife and two daughters, his mother and stepfather.

A word on the paintings, which are applied to copper, ceramic, linen and canvas: Speaking in purely aesthetic terms, they are technically impeccable, full of vitality and beautifully composed. Some are attributed to Naomi Washington, a black servant; an illustrated ceramic pen holder is ostensibly the work of Fergus Watson; several framed canvases are by a Calvin Lemuel Hoole; and several more are by Hess himself.

“Hoole’s masterpiece” is a stunning, vigorous, hyper-realist depiction of a Revolutionary War battle, sort of a cross between Pieter Bruegel and Eugene Delacroix. The pastoral “Swallow Bluff” by Hoole might have been painted by Winslow Homer.

A certain artistic seriousness permeates these paintings despite the playful context in which they are presented, and they indicate that Hess is an artist capable of work that can hold its own just fine without a grand quasi-artificial construct propping it up.

A particularly striking, expressionistic picture by the real Hess, called “Noah Forgotten” (1995) and inspired by Giovanni Bellini’s “The Drunkenness of Noah,” does just that. The spectator is given a bird’s-eye view of four figures (the Hess family) outdoors, illuminated by an afternoon sun. The man, nearly naked, lies on his back cushioned by green foliage. The robed woman peels a hard-boiled egg. The older daughter blows into a funnel as if it were a horn and looks sanguinely at the viewer. The baby sits behind its mother, glancing upward. Tools are scattered on a cloth.

What to make of this image? Perhaps it is the incongruous and dissipated culmination of the Hess family history, populated by such larger-than-life figures. Perhaps it’s an attempt to fill the hole of paternity. Perhaps it is Hess letting us in on the joke. The tools are symbols of his active imagination. The figures are only half-real. The wine is poured, but a dead moth floats on its surface.

Perhaps, then, the whole experience of “The Paternal Suit” is but a mirage in which history’s reflection, though distorted, compels the viewer on.

Its allure is undeniable, its effect unforgettable.

Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902. Follow him at www.facebook.com/aparker writer.