Interview: Jessica Hess on "Less Is More" @ Hashimoto Contemporary

Aug 31, 2017 - Sep 23, 2017Hashimoto Contemporary, San Francisco

Hashimoto Contemporary recently opened their September show, Less Is More, a solo exhibition by Jessica Hess. The show introduces a new series of hyperreal oil paintings surveying architectural ephemerality.

Less Is More
 expands Hess’ ongoing survey of derelict spaces void of human presence. The vivid paintings transport the viewer to locations around the country, such as the Heidelberg project in Detroit or the rural backroads of New England. Hess’ new work develops the narrative set forth by her previous exhibition More Is More by detailing the continuous change in these vacated structures. Graffiti saturated buildings have been buffed over, abandoned homes are boarded up and repainted. These subdued moments provoke contemplation of the cyclical nature of our built environments.

Hashimoto Contemporary curator Dasha Matsuura asked Jessica about her process and this newest show, read the interview below:


Can would walk us through your painting process? How does the work take shape from the initial idea to the finished work? Each painting begins with an urban hunting trip and my camera. I usually just stumble onto my subject by chance. It is rare that I go out of my way to plan a trip to a specific location. It's very important to note that every subject I paint has been explored by me personally. I never work from other photographers' images. My paintings are informed by my experience of seeing a place in person. Photo reference is a handy tool but it hardly begins to capture the real feel of a place. After shooting anywhere from say... 5 to 100 images in, on, and around a subject, I'll head home, set aside my digital camera, and begin my very old-school approach to composing a painting. Let's say I shoot a hundred pictures of a subject. I'll print maybe an essential 30 of those. From there I often I end up making collages with the 4x6 photos cut and taped together. I then paint into these reference collages and manipulate the collages further by making notes, color changes, and perspective corrections. My subjects do change quite a bit from reality, as I am a hyper-realist, not a photo-realist. My images are better than reality. They are enhanced, cleaned up, and stripped of humans, cars, and garbage. Colors get pushed to a candy-like saturation. I change the weather, time of day, sometimes entire seasons to suit the subject. I have no studio assistant; I build my own supports, stretch and gesso my own canvases, and brew my own damn coffee. Prep can take a week alone. A painting can take anywhere from three days to several years. For example, I worked on the "PDX Train" piece in this show for two years. While the "One-Way Shadow" painting was done in three days. I strongly believe my personal slogan should be "Doing things the hard way since 1981". Will someone please print that on a T-shirt for me?


 What ideas were you interested in exploring with this new body of work? I've been planning "Less is More" for some time. Previously my work had been focused on buildings covered in the marks left by other artists. I enjoy street art and graffiti greatly as they often enhance the structures that I am interested in. But over the years I had been documenting and stashing away some very minimal subjects as well, ones that never quite fit into previous shows. "Less is More" is the follow up to my 2015 solo exhibition at Hashimoto Contemporary, "More is More", which was all about large, complex, brightly colored, busy subjects all soaked in graffiti and street art. Where "More Is More" was about saturation and overkill, "Less Is More" explores beauty in simplicity. These new subjects are calm with minimal color palettes and straightforward, clean geometry. Many of my new "Less Is More" subjects also have quite a lot of "buff" which is a term used to describe both the act of covering up graffiti by painting over it and the term for the resulting patchy areas of uniform (but never quite matching) concealing color on surfaces. Buff amuses me. It is part of the visual call and response of graffiti; it is art in itself created unwittingly by property owners and city employees. Each layer of buff creates an inviting blank canvas for returning street artists. Artists tag, employees buff, this repeats in an endless cycle. Over time buff layers accumulate to form some lovely patchwork-like abstract works around towns. And "Less Is More" stops to appreciate that.


Your new paintings depict a variety of locations, including anywhere from Alameda to Detroit. What do you look for in a location when scouting for subject matter? For Less is More, the structure itself took precedence over any embellishment left by graffiti and street artists. So the structures themselves are very important in this show. I am particularly drawn to derelict architecture, as Mother Nature is the best abstract artist. I love weathered surfaces, faded colors, decay. The older I get the more I appreciate subtlety.

The show features a new series of paintings rendered to resemble a physical photo collage. What interests you about interweaving your subject with its reference? I often found that making my reference collages was at times more enjoyable than the lengthy and painstaking process of rendering a perfect image based on that information. Previously for me a painting would be finished in my mind the moment I stumbled upon a great subject. This discovery moment was the peak of excitement in my whole process. The actual work of perfectly painting subjects back in studio was comparatively tedious and uninteresting. All the hours of rendering made me feel like a machine, a work-horse, and not in a good "I'm so productive" way but with a grudging asleep-at-the-wheel feeling. My paintings had become monotonous and I was on autopilot. I have begun to feel like straightforward representational painting is quite boring. It isn't enough to just be technically skilled. Lots of artists are technically skilled. I was bored, and an artist should never be bored in studio. If you are bored then you are doing something wrong. To remedy this, I focused on part of my process that challenged me, experimenting with the collages themselves as subjects instead of a means to an end. This disjointed collage style of manipulating the image reveals parts of my process, parts I would have covered up in older works in pursuit of a perfect end product. Previously at times I'd pause to realize my under-paintings were beautiful in a way and it pained me to continue to work over them in subsequent layers. My new series preserves this. There is now room for discovery and happy accidents in my process and it is quite exciting. Those collage-style paintings are the works I enjoyed making most and you can expect to see more of that from me in the future.


Your last show at Hashimoto was titled “More is More”, how do you see this new exhibition in relation to that previous body of work? It's reactionary. It's an extreme reaction as the pendulum swings far in the opposite direction. I'd like to show that my work is not reliant solely on street art and graffiti, that there is really a part of me that appreciates minimalism. Admittedly it was difficult for me to really pare things down. To some the show will seem quite complex. But for me, within the context of the larger history of my artwork, it shows amazing restraint.

Who do you look to when you need inspiration? If I need inspiration I leave my studio and go photo hunting. Although I'm never at a lack for subject matter. I've usually planned my next two shows ahead already in my mind, and even now I have reference to last me the next ten years. I try not to pay attention to contemporary art. I don't want to be influenced or be a follower. I actively avoid magazine subscriptions and art fairs. I'm fairly tuned out. If you see me at an art show, chances are I'm there to be a supportive friend to a fellow artist. If there is a "who" to look towards for inspiration it is not visual artists at all but musicians. I have been passionately engrossed in being an eclectic music addict since I was a child. Nothing gets me going like a new musical discovery. The louder the music is, the more productive I am being. I swear I would rather go blind than deaf. Music is that important to me.


Where do you see your work heading in the future? Do you have any specific projects you’ve been wanting to pursue? Absolutely. As I mentioned before, I plan pretty far ahead, and while executing works for Less is More, I have been consumed by ideas for my next show, which will be called "The Chaos Aesthetic". This show will explore some of my more dilapidated subjects, places that in reality have been abstracted through physical manipulation, decay, and demolition. The works, while still hyperreal, will have elements of the uncanny in the sense that what you are seeing may seem strange, confusing, and hard to process. The uncanny, of course, is next to impossible to deliberately create but I hope to capture elements of it and attempt some level of visual confusion approaching abstraction. My very first painting instructor told me the only truly successful abstract art was made by artists who first had an understanding and certain mastery over realism. The end result being a visually informed and deliberate reinterpretation of reality. His work was quite stunning and was, for years, the only abstract art I appreciated. I believed him when he said that artists should have a slow evolution towards making abstract works and that it is a journey that spans a lifetime. This is the path I am on and I can see far down the road some very different and strange new works. But it will be a slow process with no short cuts or sharp turns. I won't startle you or lead you astray. Just stick with me on this. Things are only going to get more interesting.