Hess: Drawing-Installation

Robert Summers

Nic Hess is an artist who actively performs a reversal-displacement of various artistic practices and genres: drawing, painting, sculpting, collage, site-specificity and installation art are all re-worked.  Hess’s art “redistributes the sensible” in that it aesthetically—which is also to say politically—disrupts and reconfigures the “common of the community”.[i] Drawing from “fine art” and “pop culture”—given this binary has been thoroughly deconstructed—Hess draws (in all the senses of the word) images together in a way that surfaces the politics in, and of, all visualities.[ii] In many ways, Hess is an inheritor of the sensibilities of the Independent Group and U.S. Pop, and he shows us, as did the aforementioned movements, how commodities—which include, say, tennis shoes and/or its logo and an oil painting—surround us in this global shopping mall (and/as/or museum).  Furthermore, Hess demonstrates—by deploying various visualities that range from Nike’s “swoosh” to Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Marat (1793) in which both are intertwined via his signature “tape-drawings” titled Who Bites First (2003)[iii]—that there is no exit out of late/global capitalism.  Finally, there is always something of the autobiographical—one may even say the secret—in Hess’s work: Marat—as too Hess—was a Swiss-born intellectual concerned with the political matters; and tennis shoes, such as those made by Nike, are the preferred “companion” of Hess who would rather walk the city, with its backdrop of mountains, say, down a street named Certes, then drive through it.  In many ways, lines (drawn or walked) fill his art and life—as do multiple images and views, perspectives.

Hess’s 51 Views of Mount Matterhorn (2001), which was commissioned by, as well as installed at, the Dow Chemical European Headquarters in Switzerland, was created by his tape-drawing style.  This piece makes an assemblage of various corporate logos (e.g., AT&T’s globe, the Michelin Man, Lufthansa’s crane, and, of course, Dow’s logo), which are globally connected, and the logos emerge from various lines that at one point form a Piet Mondrian-esque tape-drawing; thus, again, Hess deconstructs the ostensibly stable binaries of “fine art” and “pop culture”.

It is interesting that Hess deploys the logos of other corporations for his site-specific tape-drawing for the Dow Headquarters, which can be read as not only the rise, but also the reign, of multi-national corporations in “our” late capital era, which now, in 2009, is facing a global collapse.[iv] Like much of Pop art, but one that literally pops out of the frame, Hess’s artwork is ambivalent in its position on capitalism, corporations, and consumerism.  It is the viewer’s troubled task to comprehend and produce meaning/s.[v] This is especially true because Hess always uses multiple images that turns the artwork toward a “heterogeneous sensible”.[vi] But, all of this is what makes Hess’s work both tantalizing and frustrating.

Just as there is not one view, but rather there are 51 views of Hess’s Mount Matterhorn—if not more—there are just as many ways to produce meaning/s “in” all of Hess’s tape-drawings.  Hess’s art “calls for” viewers as producers, and in this way all of Hess’s works are “producer texts” that explode Meaning, which then opens an infinite array of possibilities just as the lines in the drawing-drawings explode the center, which is to write “redistribute the sensible”.[vii] This is made abundantly clear in Hess’s 279 (2001) and Well Done (2001) in which there is no center—only ever “lines of flight”[viii]—and a series of Liechtenstein-inspired explosions that further decenters the subject, and destroys the singular for the multiple.

In viewing the oeuvre of Hess, one of the first things that one notices is that his artworks cannot be moved without being “destroyed”.  They are not portable objects that may be placed anywhere.  In fact, to move them is to “destroy” them.  On rare occasion, though, Hess’s tape-drawings have been transformed into sculpture: the tape is taken off the wall and made into a biomorphic object.[ix] A transformation takes place as opposed to transportation.  Like the lines that cover the wall, often converging into recognizable images, I want to follow a line of flight.

In his tape-drawing/installation for the Hammer, Hess is playing a kind of chutes and ladders: a sliding and walking.  The walls are covered in various logos and other visualities.  He is enacting a series of reversals-displacements in which nothing settles into a whole: there are only ever holes within the whole.  Yet, there is one image I would like to briefly deploy as a shifting-site of what I call Hess’s investment in multiplicity and futurity.  There is an image of a baby crawling, and it has large shoes on that are facing different directions.  This image is in close proximity to the text “pour l’avenir” (for the future).  I read this image/text as the work (as too the child) being radically open to the unknown potentialities and possibilities of the subject (in all the senses of the word) and the future.  Just as one has to turn their body to take in the work of Hess, they are also turn to the future. I think that Hess is enacting a certain generosity in creating such works.  And, if there is one thing that I have learned by being with, and looking at, Hess’s oeuvre is its multiplicity, its possibilities, its direction toward, and for, the future.


[i] See Jacques Rancière; for example, The Politics of Aesthetics (London: Continuum, 2004), and I am drawing on his Koehn Lecture at UCI on February 18, 2008.

[ii] Christine Ross, “Introduction,” in Olivier Asselin, et al., eds., Precarious Visualities (Montreal, London, and Ithaca: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2008), 3-19.

[iii] Hess prefers to call his art practice “tape-drawings” or “drawing-installations”; interview with the artist on March 6, 2008.

[iv] See Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (New York: Picador, 2008).

[v] I take the position that the “meaning” of an artwork is always performed in the multiple—that any given art does not mean anything.  For a cogent argument on this see Amelia Jones, “Art History/Art Criticism: Performing Meaning,” in Performing the Body, Performing the Text, Amelia Jones and Andrew Stephenson, eds. (London and New York: Routledge, 1999), 39-55.

[vi] Rancière, Politics of Aesthetics, 14, and his essay “Aesthetic Separation, Aesthetic Community,” in Art and Research, vol. 2, no. 1, summer 2008, 4.

[vii] I am, again, drawing on Jones, Rancière, and, ironically, Hess.

[viii] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, Brian Massumi, trans. (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), passim.

[ix] According to the artist, the Walker Museum has one such sculpture; conversation with artist on March 6, 2009.

[1] See Jacques Rancière; for example, The Politics of Aesthetics (London: Continuum, 2004), and I am drawing on his Koehn Lecture at UCI on February 18, 2008.

[1] Christine Ross, “Introduction,” in Olivier Asselin, et al., eds., Precarious Visualities (Montreal, London, and Ithaca: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2008), 3-19.

[1] Hess prefers to call his art practice “tape-drawings” or “drawing-installations”; interview with the artist on March 6, 2008.

[1] See Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (New York: Picador, 2008).

[1] I take the position that the “meaning” of an artwork is always performed in the multiple—that any given art does not mean anything.  For a cogent argument on this see Amelia Jones, “Art History/Art Criticism: Performing Meaning,” in Performing the Body, Performing the Text, Amelia Jones and Andrew Stephenson, eds. (London and New York: Routledge, 1999), 39-55.

[1] Rancière, Politics of Aesthetics, 14, and his essay “Aesthetic Separation, Aesthetic Community,” in Art and Research, vol. 2, no. 1, summer 2008, 4.

[1] I am, again, drawing on Jones, Rancière, and, ironically, Hess.

[1] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, Brian Massumi, trans. (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), passim.

[1] According to the artist, the Walker Museum has one such sculpture; conversation with artist on March 6, 2009.