In our era of exhibition websites, the printed catalogue, an object that serves as a comprehensive record of a body of work, is a rare thing. While one might argue that Andres Malraux’s 1949 thesis for the Museum Without Walls, or “imaginary museum,” is being played out today on the Internet, there are exhibitions that merit being represented in codex form. This is certainly the case with F. Scott Hess’s “The Paternal Suit: Heirlooms from the F. Scott Hess Family Foundation.” Organized in 2012 by Mark Sloan of the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art in Charleston, South Carolina, the show traveled to additional venues in Alabama, South Carolina, and California before concluding recently at the Knoxville Museum of Art. The accompanying 189-page, hard-cover catalogue presents an account of Hess’s family history, from pilgrims in the 17th century to his life today married to an Iranian-American woman.
Organized chronologically, with a diagram of Hess’s family tree in the early pages, the catalogue reads like an elaborately illustrated family album. In the introductory text, written by Bella Menteur, Ph.D, the Curator of Historical and Cultural Artifacts of the F. Scott Hess Family Foundation, she states “The work of these artists and craftsmen ranges from the most famous exemplars of their era to the unknown and unheralded.” Indeed, what we see in this catalogue, adorned with gold foil-stamping on the faux-leather cover, is a fabulous ancestral attic filled with history paintings, printed ephemera, pottery, liturgical objects, wooden implements, a puppet theater, photographs and even firearms, all of it accompanied by biographical details and historical notations. For those who mine Ancestry.com seeking to learn something about themselves by studying their genetic forbearers, this show may serve as a paradigm. While Bella Menteur is fictitious, the artist who actually created this exhibition certainly is not.
Despite its material presence and documentary format, this was a project that blurred fact and fiction, and the form and content of the catalogue serves marvelously to advance this concept. The bulk of the narrative presents the branches of the family tree connected to Hess’s paternal grandmother, Priscilla Iverson Patton, reflecting an effort by the artist to frame an understanding of a father who left him when he was only seven. Most significant, a majority of the objects in the exhibition were fabricated by the artist himself, including paintings attributed to the Dutch master Oopjen Uit den Poort (1601-55) and the 19th- century painter Calvin Lemuel Hoole (1811-1863), who had been hired by Hess’s forbearers to make paintings illustrating their family history. “The Paternal Suit,” like memory itself, is often more about perceptions than reality. To the credit of the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, the catalogue as well as the exhibition text panels “never give up the game,” allowing the mental space for viewers who catch the ironic signals to come to this realization themselves.
This project is made possible by the historical research, the playful imagination, and the amazing technical dexterity of F. Scott Hess, a Los Angeles-based artist who is best known for his figurative painting. Like history itself, this show invites deep engagement by the viewer, and, with its many text panels and more than 100 objects, requires several hours and multiple visits to unpack. Thankfully, the catalogue can serve as an effective stand-in for the show. While many of the objects—from paintings in historical styles to a “Deacon’s staff”— are made entirely by the artist, others are actual items from his family history, and some are appropriated to fit the familial narrative. Once you “get” what he is up to, the distinctions between these elements are hard to figure out, which was part of the pleasure of the show. The tremendous range of artifacts in this exhibition recalled George Kubler’s The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things, first published in 1962, which serves to remind us that all material culture, either fine or applied art, are essentially artifacts, each reflecting the materials, methods and style of their period.
In her 2009 essay in October, “Make-Believe: Parafiction and Plausibility,” Carrie Lambert-Beatty maps a liminal territory of artistic practice that involves the creation of works of fiction that wear the clothes of plausibility. Lambert-Beatty’s essay, which served as a theoretical premise for Elizabeth Armstrong’s 2012-13 exhibition “MO/RE RE/AL? Art in the Age of Truthiness,” offers examples of a number of contemporary artists who create works that use museum or public spaces to blur the distinctions between reality and fiction, often testing public perceptions and values. While parafiction may be thought of a form of mock-documentation, Lambert-Beatty points to its significance today when there are contrasting claims to scientific or historical truth, often based on different documentary evidence.
Many of the objects in the exhibition test our perceptions of their provenance and authenticity. At various points in the show there were subtle ironic signals which served to poke the viewer, encouraging a meta-reading. Among these was the wool cavalry jacket of Confederate General Alfred Iverson, who played a key role in the Confederate Army’s defeat at Gettysburg, but later achieved military success at battles in Georgia. According to the narrative, following Iverson’s death, the jacket was stored on a farm in Florida subjected to “lysozymic gas” emitted by the excrement of Brahma Bulls, expanded the wool fibers of the jacket, thus making it nearly twice its former size. This object, as noted by the artist at the beginning of the catalogue, is the namesake of the project itself, “swollen by myth, and impossible to wear.”
While Hess is certainly attracted to the more disreputable characters in his family history, it is the expressions of racism that are most unsettling. He includes his family’s plantation history, with examples of painted tiles from a fireplace depicting slaves at work, as well as numerous artifacts and history paintings related to the Civil War. Hess even inserts General Alfred Iverson into a preliminary, but unsuccessful design for a section of the Stone Mountain Confederate Memorial. Most unsettling among these is Charles H. Smith, who using the pen name Bill Arp, wrote to President Lincoln advocating for slavery. The catalogue illustrates a commercial reproduction of Arp’s ceramic penholder, which includes a scene depicting a KKK-initiated lynching. It is telling that this exhibition originated in Charleston, South Carolina, home to the Old Slave Mart Museum, and reached a significant audience in the Southeastern U.S. “The Paternal Suit” serves to acknowledge a history of racial oppression while also raising questions regarding how historical narratives are constructed. The layering of truth and fiction, the real and the imagined is what makes F. Scott Hess’s project and this comprehensive catalogue so compelling.
Beauvais Lyons is a Chancellor’s Professor at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, where he has taught printmaking since 1985. In 2014, he received the Santo Foundation Artist Award.