The lightness of being
Beams of sunlight flood in through the windows of Per Hess’s impeccably clean studio, high up in a converted factory with views across the city of Oslo. The snow is finally melting on this March afternoon and spring is in the air. The rays catch two recent paintings on the wall. The pale blue and red lines of the canvas, interspersed with white sections, are almost eclipsed by the bright light; one can barely make out the numbers inscribed on the surface. ‘Too much’ mutters the artist and draws the blinds. The cold, blue Nordic light is ideal; direct sunlight less so. How will these delicate, subdued paintings fair in a Venetian palazzo with the intense, warm light, captured so sumptuously by Canaletto, pouring through the grand old windows? By filters, is the easy answer, and by recreating the white walls of the studio in the sinking city.
Light and colour have preoccupied Hess throughout his career. His palette is limited to variations on the primary colours, and they are subdued, as he draws on white to provide a surface for light to lift and animate his pale hues, which appear almost celestial. Hess has a near-spiritual relationship with light and colour, and describes how the rays enable his colours to take on lives of their own, how they border on perishing, but are brought back to life by the glow of the sun, so they seem to be ‘stepping out of the picture’.
However, it would be erroneous to situate Hess’s work merely in the realm of the spiritual, with light as an existential force. There are specific contemporary, references in the work that bring it into immediate dialogue with the real world. Having been politically engaged earlier in his artistic career, Hess does not venture into the studio as a refuge from everyday life; instead the studio is where actual issues are worked through. It may be a private space, but it relates to the public realm, with its concrete concerns. ‘Money’ is a term that frequently recurs in Hess’s work and becomes an articulation point for juxtapositions that characterise the artist’s approach: between the literal and the conceptual. On the one hand, money is treated in a material fashion: money pays the rent, buys the paints, the brushes and the time to retreat to the studio. It is an uncertain investment: works may sell for a fortune, making the artist incredibly rich, but it is, ultimately, an ‘unbankable’ commodity. As the current financial system is under duress and economies failing under double-dip recessions, money is literally losing its value. On the other hand, there is the idea of money as a belief system. People – and the political category of ‘the people’ – are gradually relinquishing faith in various austerity measures they are subjected to, and risk, ultimately, losing faith in money as a constructed representation of value, which is constantly highlighted by inflation and spiralling debts.
Hess’s interest in the relationship between art, money and capital is expressed in a direct reference to art market value in the two pale blue and red paintings. The numbers on the canvas refer to the sales price of two similar works by Daniel Buren, who is directly invoked in Hess’s use of the artist’s characteristic stripes. The work sold in 2006 for $316 841 and the work sold in 2010, fetched $542 500. They show that the art market operates as a separate and self-contained system of value, ultimately represented by a price tag, despite various appeals to the higher values of ‘art for art’s sake’. Hess refrains from passing judgment on this scenario – merely pointing to it – thus leaving space for viewers to construct their own critique – or evade it completely. Alongside this invocation of money as a construct, Hess also approaches money as what he calls ‘an abstract belief’, likening the experience of money to the experience of art and so forging a link between the aesthetic realm of the artwork and the material world of finance.
Despite this interest in and engagement with broader notions of value, Hess is first and foremost a painter. As a painter dedicated to his medium since the 1970s, he embraces the self-reflexivity that comes with a discipline that constantly questions itself and its own right to survive. In his famous essay ‘Modernist Painting’ (1965), Clement Greenberg contended that the hallmark of modernist art was ‘the use of characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself, not in order to subvert it but in order to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence.’ In his monochromatic paintings, bearing questions related to colour, Hess approaches this self-referentiality – one might say soul searching – of painting in a refreshingly playful way. Posing questions on the canvas of the monochromes such as ‘Is Black Back?’ or ‘Is Blue True?’ Hess references how the history of painting, since the invention of photography, has been characterised by the recurring banal questions – the foremost of which relates to the medium’s presumed demise: ‘Is painting dead?’
However, these monochromatic and textual works are not quick one-liners, for Hess is a painter who works slowly and meticulously. The colours emerge through a long process of adding layer upon layer until the artist is satisfied with the effect. Asserting that he is ‘working, not producing’ one could detect a Marxist undertone to his approach. The idea of the painter’s ‘work’ can be juxtaposed the quick images (mass) ‘produced’ in our digital, visually saturated culture. The paintings also demand something different from the viewer: they require time. They do not scream in the way that commercially produced imagery does, but insist quietly, yet forcefully. Hess provides a space for interaction between the viewer’s perception and the work. The light works upon the surface of the paintings, lifting the colours and creating a vibrant relationship that a mere swift glance would fail to capture. To continue the fiscal vocabulary: the viewer must invest the time, but the returns are then greater, as the paintings grow more forceful with sustained attention.
Born of the private space of the studio and nourished by the artist before they leave the pristine white space of their home, the works now undertake what Daniel Buren described in The Function of the Studio (1971) as ‘the hazardous passage’ from studio to gallery, from Oslo to Venice. With light to sustain them and resuscitate them, the paintings will live on in an almost ethereal realm of aesthetic meaning, where concepts of beauty still hold some currency. Whether they remain immune from the art market’s own system of value remains to be seen. At once timely and timeless, they command attention at any rate.
Catalogue text by Natalie Hope O’Donnell for the exhibition «Personal Structures», Palazzo Bembo, 55 Biennale di Venezia.
 Reprinted in Gregory edt Battcock, The new art : a critical anthology, [1st ed.] ed. (New York: Dutton, 1966).