How Long Has it Been Since You Have Been Outside?
Solo Exhibition Marietta College
The title of Erika Hess’ exhibition of recent paintings is presented as a question: “How Long Has it Been Since You Have Been Outside?” Taken literally, Hess might appear to be asking her audience where they have been spending their time during the anxious months of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the real intent of the question is to open up metaphors. The semi-abstract landscapes of the artist’s new canvases depict what the artists calls “re-imagined birth and death spaces as psychological landscapes.” It may sound heavy—especially coming from an artist and podcaster known for her lively and optimistic demeanor— but the gravitas is intentional. This body of work reflects a genuine commitment to self-exploration and emotional honesty in response to challenging events. Seen as a group these paintings are intended to take viewer’s outside the normal perimeters of the mundane towards a deeper state of consciousness.
Inspired by a friend’s tragic loss, “Lost” is an act of artistic empathy that comes from a very deep place, one of a series of paintings that use the imagery of water to discuss emotional states. The artist’s third child arrived several months into the COVID-19 pandemic and after her son’s birth—which came with complications—she found herself suffering from postpartum depression. While nursing her son and worrying about his future Hess often stared at a pond across the street, internalizing the view and loading it with associations. Later, when a friend she had met during her maternity lost her baby, the awful news poured itself into “Lost,” which was painted in a single emotional day. Activated by a beautiful/ugly palette of warm and cool hues, “Lost” has a kind of inescapable immediacy that speaks of pain without literally illustrating it. Irregular and amorphous—like the inkblots used in a Rorschach test—the streaky orange pond is a place where unconscious feelings are summoned to the surface then contained by a field of sonorous blues.
“Birthing Pains,” which shares its palette and water imagery with “Lost,” moves towards greater specificity. “I work in between different paintings until something grabs me,” Hess explains and the presence of a triple-faced woman activates this work. Inspired by Renaissance “Trifacial Trinities” of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost (these depictions were censored as “Pagan” by Pope Urban in 1628) the central figure of “Birthing Pains” rises from a woven matrix of floating, horizontal brushstrokes. She sees everything—the past, present and figure—and is surrounded by red hands raising themself towards the surface, reaching upwards towards the surface. The hands suggest multiple interpretations including hope and the subconscious.
In this personal mythological zone—which Hess describes as a “space where everything aligns”—time stands still as birth and death are present as counterforces. Painted with gusto, with alternating fields of thin, thick and squirted paint, the canvas has a visceral physicality that adds to its impact. Both secular and cosmic “Birthing Pains” contains a feminist creation myth that simultaneously refers to birth, consciousness and loss. Hess likes revisiting and updating themes from the past and “Birthing Pains” carries echoes of Botticelli’s Renaissance “Venus,” who is best described as a weightless Neo-Platonic ideal. Hess’ self-aware goddess can be seen as an emotionally charged icon of womanhood that embodies a less-idealized but more conscious deity born into anxious times.
Renaissance themes are also updated and secularized in “Give Me Eyes So I Can See,” a double Pietà that uses two human figures to reference multiple tragedies: AIDS and COVID deaths in New York City and the racially charged murder of George Floyd by a police officer. Supported by robed figures that symbolize both comfort and death itself, the two men reach towards each other to almost touch hands. It is a gesture that is both moving and tantalizingly incomplete. Surrounded by a stylized Eden that both shields and threatens they enact an other-worldly drama with moral implications. When Hess showed the work to visiting art dealer, she offered an opinion that summed up what the artist was feeling when she painted it: “The world is a messed up place at this time.”
The tone of Hess’ work seems to be moving tentatively towards a more sanguine outlook. Her latest painting, “The Fall,” has a tragic title, but its evaporating pond is rimmed by images of nature flourishing. The woman who appears twice reflected in the pond—looking out at us both upright and inverted—feels like a sober and contemplative self-portrait. “The Fall” has a new tenderness and lightness of color that indicates a kind of metaphorical change of seasons. Grief and reflection are present, but so is the onset of spring. Stepping outside has become at least a bit more pleasant.
"The more emotionally versatile we can be, the better off we are as individuals and as a society,” Hess comments. “I attempt to be in the present moment while aware that the now is impermeant and loss is unavoidable." By using her art to step outside the sanitized views of mortality and grieving that permeate our culture, Hess has steadied herself and explored new emotional and psychological depths. If those viewing her work are inspired to do the same, that is the greatest compliment they can give to Hess and her art. Of course, they might also notice that she is a very original colorist as well.
- John Seed
John Seed is a Professor Emeritus of Art and Art History at Mount San Jacinto College. His writings on art and artists have appeared in Arts of Asia, The Huffington Post, Hyperallergic and numerous other publications. Seed is also the author of "My Art World: Recollections and other Writings" and "DIsrupted Realism: Paintings for a Distracted World." His next book, "More Disruption: Representation in Flux" will be released in early 2023.