I have a nostalgic soft spot in my heart for two things: Scotland and Derek Hess.
Cleveland’s Derek Hess is a Juxtapoz/rock art cult legend, whose line-heavy album covers and concert posters are shamelessly and physically raw. And Scotland is the birthplace of haggis, the Industrial Revolution and writer Irvine Welsh.
It should be a thrill, then, that they both have exhibitions in Las Vegas at the same time, right? Not so much.
Group shows are tough: tough to write about, tough to curate, tough to title. At UNLV’s Donna Beam Fine Art Gallery, all of the work in The Scottish Show is, well, Scottish, which appears to be the single unifying factor in an exhibition of work ranging from the ’70s until now. The work is inconsistent, and the show is just plain overhung; overshadowed by the sheer volume of visual noise (Part 2 of the exhibition is at the Marjorie Barrick Museum of Natural History!), its few treasures are difficult to enjoy. But the best work contains that magically Scottish combination of black humor and a kind of whimsy taunting the face of life’s brutal realities.
A number of significant, relatively recent Scottish artists are represented, and much of the work is quite dark, heavy with cultural and personal symbolism. The trend here is narrative and representational. John Bellany is a godfather of Scottish art, famous for broodingly expressionistic drawings and paintings. Residing somewhere at the intersection of Ralph Steadman and Max Beckman, prints like “Conger Eel Woman Eats” are representative of Bellany’s skillful cultural narratives.
The show also features work by Ken Currie and Steven Campbell, two highly regarded artists loosely batched with others under the name “The New Glasgow Boys,” a group that emerged from the Glasgow School of Art in the mid-’80s to revitalize the country’s art community on an international scale.
Campbell’s faux-naïve, Chagall-like paintings are revered by many, but it is Currie’s ethereal paintings of ghostly figures that are hard to shake. The figures in “Legless Boy (After Muybridge)” and “Ultimatum” absolutely shimmer in torment and beauty.
But the real discovery is Eddie Summerton. His small gouache paintings, mostly on found paper, are terrifically sweet and funny and a bit sad. All are pastoral, or of nature, scenes that seem to address a culture and country very tied to the rural, but in the midst of experiencing an alienation from that reality—an international predicament. Summerton’s hilarious “The District Nurse,” a cloaked figure on a country road, is the most rewarding piece in the show.
As a big fan of Scottish contemporary art, I was a bit disappointed. Jim Lambie and Lucy McKenzie are two examples of the country’s best contemporary voices, and the show doesn’t really reflect the more dynamic trends these artists represent. Perhaps a more focused exhibition would have given a more insightful peek into the Scottish creative mind.
Derek Hess has his own brand of black humor when negotiating life’s harsher realities. But I was nervous before seeing the Hess exhibition at MTZC Gallery: Would it, too, disappoint? Hess fans will immediately recognize the deft, confident line work. In Hess’ hands, this mortal coil is turned over and over again in muscular, writhing figures that all appear to bear the weight of the world.
Hess’ reliably dynamic linear renderings of the human form are present and accounted for. The real surprise here is the collage work. Hess has drawn into, around and over numerous found images. Works like “Footloose” and “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing,” where the artist has drawn his own lumbering figure dancing with vintage illustrated characters, highlight his mastery of graphic language. The physicality of the built-up lines of his figures is accentuated by the illustrative hard lines of the printed shapes.
The presence of the artist’s hand is also beautifully underscored in renderings that are part of highly politicized collages. Pieces like “The Surge” and “The Devil’s Chimney” use elements from ministry pamphlets as symbols for seething political and religious criticism, as the field of vision swarms with violent marks and text.