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).
«Much has been said and written about the economic circulation of capital between the cultural and monetary sectors, but it is a rare thing for that question to be addressed in painting itself. Per Hess’ exhibition “White is the New Black” consists of paintings in ultra pale pastel tones, in some cases so close to white that the color can seem just too weak, until suddenly it jumps out at you again through the layers of lacquer. The visual impression of the exhibition as a whole is highly suggestive of both op and pop art, and links in to the exhibition’s central theme – money – by playing on the illusory. The purity of style and the minimalist approach, which hark back to the legacy of monochrome painting, stand in contrast to the momentous and dramatic theme of money. Most of us find it incomprehensible that our expectations of what we can achieve in life depend on abstract economic conditions that can be represented as graphs.
Any visualization of such ubiquitous forces will of course be inadequate, and we are brought closer to the seemingly divine aspect of a major currency, not by prohibiting its representation, but at least by treating it as something linked to morality. One question we are prompted to ask is: Are Hess’ paintings an evasive maneuver? The playful ease with which he handles the theme, more suggestive of comedy than tragedy, is accompanied throughout by a punning use of words. For example, he combines the symbols for the major currencies on a coin, where they spell the polytheistic figure $€€, an affirmative and revelatory celebration of money’s convertibility into anything whatsoever, a way of looking at the world – including the art object itself.
Implicit in these objects is a gulf between the painting as something we get close to and sense with the entire body, and the painting as something that can acquire such immense monetary value that it leaves us feeling totally estranged from it. How do we reconcile these qualities in one and the same object?
Here again, our senses can be unreliable guides. In one of his paintings, Hess makes use of a pop-art-inspired pointillist grid from an enlarged halftone image of an original signature that could be read as either “Money” or “Monet.” The signature is like the symbol for a real currency with a guaranteed exchange value, but which also serves as the sign that validates an individual style. Hess subtly shows how a signature can be an ambiguous entity that might refer only to the underlying universal language that serves as intermediary – money.
The exhibition forces us to reflect on money and its relationship to art, as something that has both real value and exchange value, on transactions in relation to cultural capital, but also on money as a fragile and unstable phenomenon. The illusory nature of monetary value is underlined and linked to reflections on art in ¥€$, in which the title word appears essentially as an after-image – an inscription in white on a pink background so pale that it too is almost white. To the left and the right of this positive exclamation are two dollar figures representing the highest prices paid for paintings by Daniel Buren in 2006 and 2010. The artist is raising questions about art as an investment, and how markets collectively decide to back artists who are still waiting to receive the art historians’ seal of approval.
Although “White is the New Black” is a self-assured statement on the theme of money and art, it would have been even more forceful if it had confronted the dichotomy between the black and white economies more directly. On the other hand the paintings declame that art has a clean value not to be threathened.»
From the Art critics of Marius Meli. Written to the exhibition «White is the new black».
«Per Hess is a painter who uses the color as an instrument to elucidate various political topics related to areas such as finance and communication. In his exhibition at Kunst1 he investigates the world famous colorist Claude Monets 2 months long stay in Sandvika februar and mars 1895, where he «wanted to paint the white snow in all its colors».
Monet´s signature is analyzed in a series of painted «prints». Per Hess explains «I have studied Monet´s production of the 29 cataloged paintings he work up during his stay, all signed. In one of these signatures the letter t in Monet had virtually the shape of a Y. This has only occurred one time in all of Monet’s total production. No other of his paintings are signed so. The Y allows Monet being the Money. In an unconsciously but clairvoyant moment Monet has captured an unintended aspect of developments in the value of his paintings at the international art market.
In the series of 5 pictures, one for each letter, I retrieve Monet’s signature from the two Norwegian books that are published about Monet’s residence in Sandvigen in 1895. Raster from the book, the graphical leftover, is retained because it provides a perceptual experience that is more intense in that color spots mixes various color shades for our eye. This was impressionists experience, elaborated by the pointilists and continued by printing techniques with its use of raster-cliché´s to render images with many hues. I used this experience when painting the pictures.»
From the press release of Henning L. Mortensen, to the exhibition «Monet – Money».
«The expression “the financial and the spiritual” is often applied to the world of publishing, but is just as relevant to the art world. A point the painter Per Hess makes in a variety of ways. While Olafur Eliasson’s sensational light exhibition is drawing in the crowds at Astrup Fearnley Museum, it is worth recalling that optical effects can also be produced by more conventional means. At LNM, the gallery of the Association of Norwegian Painters at Bankplassen, Per Hess shows that painting still has the power to surprise. And he does so with politically charged pictures that are so self-obliteratingly white that they almost shine! This exhibition is a Wunderkammer with a big difference.»
«Most of these pictures make the point that white is much more than just white. This is particularly clear in Down to Business 5, which hangs in the innermost corner and seems to radiate its own light.
Around a pink field (the effect of an underlying neon-orange pigment), the grey frame appears white. And shimmering through all this is a barely discernible white stripe like the line of a graph representing the development of share prices.As an economic indicator, the line is plummeting, but as such it only applies to Per Hess’ vision of the financial world. The spiritual conquers the financial because he demonstrates that a minimalist and ultra-modernist project can have a vitality that reaches far beyond the capitalist imagination.»
From the Art critics of Lars Elton, for the newspaper Verdens Gang.
«Hess also shows how the language of economics infiltrates ever more aspects of the world, notably in a series of paintings in which the lines and curves of graphs form quietly shimmering traces of colour beneath the sensitive white surfaces. These diagrams imitate the vital use of line and the rhythmic energy of classic modernism, yet in this rarefied form they also suggest the ups and downs of share prices.
The fluctuations reflect the movements of money, which measure not just the market but also the forces that underpin a painting’s value. Although Hess avoids a romantic view of the brushstroke as a seismographic gauge of the shifting psyche, he challenges the gaze with both a thoughtful eye and a sensitive feel for the painter’s medium.»
From the Art critics of Harald Flor, for the newspaper Dagbladet.
«There is not much painting to be seen in the leading galleries at present. Will presentations of art photography help to liberate painting – to give it a second chance? Despite its weaknesses, this is what the exhibition “Down to Business” seems to suggest.
Painting, as we all know, is no longer what it was.
Although the art historical canon regards painting as one of the main protagonists of the Western cultural heritage, and possibly also an essential prerequisite for self-understanding, for decades it has been viewed with scepticism. Is it a uniquely adaptable art form, or has its expressive potential been exhausted? It is not without reason that painting today seems so intent on contemplating its own status and function.
In exhibiting his paintings at Galleri LNM (the Association of Norwegian Painters’ own gallery) under the ambiguous title of “Down to Business”, Per Hess (b.1946) alludes paradoxically both to painting’s function as a decorative but tradable security and to a more hard-nosed bottom-line attitude. This ambiguity reminds me of the aging American conceptual artist Mel Bochner’s description of painting: “In the mid 70s painting was an abandoned language. An immense palace with no one home. I pitched a little tent there and discovered loads of interesting things to do” (Stian Grøgaard: “Det vage objektet, 12 samtaler om kunst”, 2001).
Now that “other techniques” have come to seem like art’s normal forms, perhaps painting can be viewed as an alternative, or unusual technique.
The language of finance.
Per Hess’ paintings require us to sharpen our gaze: clinically white picture surfaces seem almost to merge with the walls behind them. It takes time to notice their indistinct motifs, texts and visual nuances. In one key work the words “white wash” are shared between two canvases. Subtly applied in white on white, the text prompts thoughts relating to painting, such as the illicit money that often surrounds it, minimalism’s rejection of representation, or more specifically the white of these pictures.
But perhaps “white wash” is a comment first and foremost on the picture Temple that hangs on the opposite wall, a stretched out depiction of the Oslo Stock Exchange, consisting of forty photographs covered in thin white paint. The result is flattened; something misty and mysterious envelopes the empty building, which appears less real and more disturbing than usual – not least because there are no expensive cars, only a single bike, standing outside.
In several paintings, the artist invokes the language of economics by citing elements from graphs and presentational charts. The carefully traced lines, barely visible on the bright surfaces, look like they come straight from some annual report. Narrow lines and cool, precise abstraction, forming a contrast to the tradition of expressive painting that features dramatic creativity as its theme and content. But behind Hess’ “neutral” language, we sense the dramatic impact that economic forces have on our lives, forces that are surely no match for the more or less chaotic inner world of a single artist. The decidedly low-key references to an outer world create a playful exchange between metaphysics and realism, suggesting a surprising affinity between the discourse of art and human experience, and possibly also between aesthetics and ethics.
Lit from within
The dominant white of the exhibition emphasises distance and silence. Even so, we identify the boundary between whiteness and colour as an underlying theme. With his skilled hand and solid experience, Hess is able to make it seem as if some of the paintings are lit from within – rather than being painted surfaces. Here, one could say, colour is allowed to be what it really is: light.
The exhibition has a sharp focus on content and perfectionism in terms of craft. With the subtlety of its techniques and its daring conceptual leaps, “Down to Business” requires the viewer to be highly attentive.»
From the Art critics of Lotte Sandberg, for the newspaper Aftenposten.