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THE ART GALLERIES

Wilshire Center

October 24, 1986|WILLIAM WILSON

In a famous "Adoration of the Shepherds," Hugo van der Goes painted the faces of peasants with unprecedented candor. They are benighted Neanderthal men with their buck teeth, beetled brows and coarse features but they are redeemed by their wonder at the miraculous event.

Painter F. Scott Hess sees humankind in much the same light, minus the miracle. It is a weird, sour Northern European sensibility made all the odder by being grafted to the paradise geography of our own Lotusland. Hess paints a couple seated on a ramshackle balcony in the populist valhalla of Echo Park. She is pregnant and he is dismayed. Hess paints the 4th of July at Santa Monica beach with a Delacroix-like liberty figure utterly ignored by the local yahoos whose vulgar pleasures make Bruegel's peasants look refined.

Hess implies sleazy sexuality in a pool-party scene, political violence in a card-game picture and racial violence in a red-neck kitchen klatsch. If this were all just some predictable form of thin satire you could shrug it off as merely another shallow attack of misanthropy. But Hess paints so beautifully that the work's gorgeous substance lends authority to its sheer nastiness. Hess' art sees humanity as an irredeemable collection of scumbags fueled by base appetite and vicious prejudice.

Historically, it is a gloomy Protestant view of the species, but Hess' work evokes a whole tradition of bilious art in modern times from the American Regionalists to Paul Cadmus, Jack Beal and members of the old Ceeje gallery. What makes Hess distinctive in the company is the unusual beauty of the underlying work and the absolute weirdness of the hybrid of Viennese scorn with L.A. cool. For flat-out oddness, linking mind-set to pictorial space, you have to cast back to the 16th Century when German art grafted sausage-like substance to mannered Italian space and came up with an art designed to make you seasick. (Ovsey Gallery, 126 N. La Brea Ave., to Nov. 8.)

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