Rock and a Hard Place
Derek Hess' Show Posters and Drawings Lay It on the Line
Hess' work is immediately recognizable from his figure's strenuous postures and his sharp visual wit, as evidenced by his show posters and album covers. While drawing posters and promoting shows for the Euclid Tavern in Cleveland in the early '90s, Hess began to draw for other clubs and bands. After his art became a full-time activity, he turned his attention to more personal fine-art work. His images--enigmatic winged figures, giant hands, and sphinxlike creatures--are arresting, testifying to their original purpose: grabbing the attention of passers-by. A clever poster for the band Firewater depicts a naked winged cherub in a firefighter's hat pissing on a crowd equipped with umbrellas. In a poster for the Christian-themed hardcore-metal band Zao, a hooded dancer dressed in white thrusts a fist in the air, imitating the group's fans.
Hess' lines jump and quiver, often escaping his forms' outlines, and the artist uses layers of intricate hatching and shading to form detail. His faces are often obscured and in shadow, lending a quality of generality and symbolism to the figures. His nudes are often exaggerated, far removed from the idealized forms of classical art; their nakedness is primal, even vulgar, but as captivating as it is eye-catching.
The show's fine-art pieces testify to the artist's more introspective, darker side. Hess' context-less figures crumple in defeat or strain outwardly in agony. Here, he strips the work of its referential symbolism, of its detail and definition. The forms are stripped down with draft lines still visible and few defined bodily features. In "Receding Tide," only the shadow defines the body, and in "Deeper the Wound" the torso consists of only a few sketchy lines. Hess splashes the black-and-white drawings with bright, bold red--often as blood, either as a massive injury or self-mutilating cuts, both suggesting emotional scars. Hess' fine art is as bare as it is bold, and, as with his poster art, the viewer is left uncomfortable but completely enraptured.
A little farther uptown, the H. Lewis Gallery exhibits the personal work of another artist usually associated with rock music, Cynthia Connolly. Banned in DC, her collection of photos from the vibrant early-'80s Washington punk scene, may have made her a name in the underground-music community, but here she exhibits work that focuses on her own artistic vision. She, along with Lely Constantinople and Antonia Tricarico, is showcased in H. Lewis' Itinerant exhibit. Although the show's ostensible subject is travel, each of the artists develops the theme according to her own artistic sensibility. The result is a wonderfully chaotic collage of images, which the show's organizers rightly highlight by packing the variously sized photographs next to and above one another.
Tricarico's work strikes first, luring viewers with delicate images of expressive faces. Her settings range from Italy to Cuba, D.C. to L.A., yet in each place she frames the image around a face, as though trying to convey that travel is really movement among people and not lands. Often, the photo closes in so tightly on its subject that the background is obscured and parts of the face are cut out, as in "Michele, Potenza, Italy, 1999." A child's pouting mouth makes "Guilia, Potenza, Italy, 2000" unforgettable--and it's not the Italian setting for the shot but the endearing youngster's face that makes all the difference.
At first, Constantinople's work seems to cut across the board, from settings as varied as Virginia, Jamaica, and Greece. Her street portraits document the interaction between people and their living spaces, and their effect on each other. Sometimes she frames the shot around a suspicious backward glance, other times around a line of graffiti. Yet despite this variety of subjects, her control, lighting, and framing shows more consistency than that of her co-exhibitors. In shots such as "Jeweler, Athens, Greece, 2000," Constantinople draws us to the focal point of the image through creative use of natural spot lighting--a hot, bright spot thrown by the man's desk lamp attracts the eye. Her presentation of traveling lies not so much in documenting different people and places, but documenting how she sees the cities she visits. By extension, then, the traveler always sets the tone for the destination through personal attitudes and ways of experiencing.
Connolly's work centers on the expansive American Midwest and Southwest and thus bears the mark of a hemmed-in East Coaster. The width and depth of the roads and landscapes of Wyoming and California fascinate her, and her enthusiasm carries over into her images. But like her partners in Itinerant, she is most drawn to the human influence on the landscape, even if those people only exist in the evidence they've left behind: buildings, graffiti, even ice machines. Graffiti is particularly important to Connolly as an act that occurred in a specific place and time but takes on new meanings in context. fuck cops scrawled on a dumpster in a remote location takes on special irony by virtue of the scene's total lack of people, let alone cops. "Ice Machines 1993-1998+" serves as a centerpiece to her collection, spanning years of traveling--and though many of the ice machines look similar, each one's unique context, from the graffiti sprawled on the D.C. and Miami machines to the lonely boxes at Midwestern outposts, gives each its unique value.
That collection of images, like much of Connolly's work here, speaks to the generic nature of American objects that are made specific by their relationship to their surroundings. Landscapes from Wyoming and Arizona emphasize the expansiveness of the land with a series of shots from the same spot looking out in different directions--a kind of CinemaScope view of the desert.
Still, the shots conspicuously include human intervention, from roads to Connolly's own shadow. It all serves to underline the message that unites each of the artists' work on display--it's people, not places, that makes travel a truly human experience.
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