F. Scott Hess is a narrative realist painter whose work explores and questions contemporary themes such as alienation, identity, loss, family, sex, and popular culture. Hess's work focuses on mankind's struggle to give life meaning and one of the major throughlines of his oeuvre is the belief that there are common baselines, or universals, shared by all, a belief that art critic Donald Kuspit refers to as Hess's "New Humanism."
Kuspit calls Hess a "New Old Master," someone who employs the complex formalism of the old masters to depict incidents that are both poetically ambiguous and intellectually rich with symbolic, literary, and art historical references. While his paintings employ "profane realism to represent the sacred moments of life," they also raise as many questions as they answer with their psychologically charged, sometimes controversial, subject matter.
Hess frequently works in series. The Hours of the Day (1995–2001), a critically acclaimed six-year project based on the medieval Book of Hours, features twenty-four paintings, each one representing a single hour of the day. According to art historian Richard Vine, The Hours of the Day prompts the question as to "whether any significant order can be discerned in our way of life … any higher purpose in our now godless trajectory of living, birthing, and dying.” Hess's latest series, The Seven Laughters of God, is based on an Egyptian creation myth, and depicts a young man's journey from struggling artist to art world hero, a twenty-first century update of William Hogarth's A Rake's Progress (1753).
Hess graduated from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in 1977. Two years later he moved to Vienna, Austria, where he studied with the painter Rudolf Hausner for five years. It was in Vienna that Hess gained greater exposure to old master painting, an experience that informs his work greatly. Hess's use of skewed perspectives and portraiture (both of himself and others), his notable draftsmanship and anatomical proficiency, and the narrative distance of his compositions reflect the influence of Renaissance and Baroque masters such as Giotto, Bellini, Lotto, and Rembrandt.
The cultural environs and socioeconomic climate of Los Angeles, where Hess lives and works, play an important role in his painting. In the 1980s Hess made a series of works that focus on the entertainment industry and his more recent paintings often use the homes and streets of his Echo Park neighborhood as a backdrop. Hess is loosely associated with the LA-based group of artists, "The Bastards," an irreverent moniker that refers to their illegitimate art-world status as realist painters.5
F. Scott Hess's work is represented in the permanent collections of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.; the San Jose Museum of Art; the Oakland Museum of California Art, and the Orange County Museum of Art in Newport Beach.