The Plain Dealer
January 13, 1995
Hess' rock posters explode
by Steven Litt
Cleveland artists have been stapling rock concert posters to telepbone poles and bulletin boards for more than 20 years. But none caught the eye of art dealer William Busta until the recent emergence of Derek Hess, whose wild, violent and often nihilstic rock posters are attracting national attention.
A new exhibition of Hess' work at Busta's gallery in Little Italy makes it easy to see why the artist has a strong following. His brigbt, energetic, emotionally jagged posters blend brilliant passages of drawing witb bursts of vibrant color and a dark, subversive view of pop culture.
In Hess' hands, a music poster becomes a careening vehicle for morbid meditations on the discontents of Generation X the twentysomethings who came of age in the late '80s and early '90s. The world view is so diabolical you can almost bear the artist cackle.
A poster for the band Pavement shows a maniacal Barney dinosaur at the controls of a steamroller aimed at a little girl playing hopscotch. A poster for the band Cop Sboot Cop depicts a comic strip narrative in which policemen from Cleveland Heights and Lakewood gun each other down in an absurd duel over a doughnut.
A poster for Pop Defect and Alcohol Funnycar shows two boys huffing (inhaling) spray paint from paper bags. Tbe image includes a plug for a fictional "Paint Huffers Union Local 666" along with the injunction, "Huff paint and see God."
Corrupted innocence and spoiled religion are favorite Hess themes. For a Bad Religion concert the artist depicted a Catholic priest as a machine gun toting soldier with packs of cigarettes jammed in the headband of his helmet. For Jesus Lizard, Hess envisioned a chimerical lizard man monster at the wbeel of a speeding car, holding a terrified infant tightly with a green tentacle.
Images of death and martyrdom appear frequently. For a concert by Nine Inch Nails, Hess depicted a man in white briefs crucified on a telephone pole while winged putti hover around him in the sky. Another poster for Nine Inch Nails shows an execution scene in which four seminude men are being hanged by electrical cords
Most of Hess' work is filled with an imaginary quest for experiences so explosive they literaly obliterate consciousness. The spirit of his work might be summed up by a sketch of Chief Waboo, the Cleveland Indians logo, riding to doom on a giant bomb, like Slim Pickens in the final scene of the Stanley Kubrick film, "Dr. Strangelove."
At their most extreme, as in the Nine Inch Nails posters, Hess' work makes a visual link between the culture of alternative rock and the morbid nihilism of Generation X that is downright scary. At the same time, Hess' art is far more than an angry cry. It is filled with irreverence, dark humor and sheer artistic skill.
Hess, 30, came by his talents naturally. He is a son of the late Roy Hess, the former chairman of the Industrial Design Department at the Cleveland Institute of Art. The younger Hess studied at the institute on and off from 1983 92, with a stint from 1987 89 at the Center for Creative Studies in Detroit.
Hess started making posters several years ago while working as a concert promoter at the Euclid Tavern in Cleveland. Since then, his work hs featured in rock magazines across the country and in Newsweek, where Hess garnered attention as part of new wave of rock poster artists.
What distinguishes Hess from other artists of his generation is his admirable skill as a draftsman. His drawings made with jagged, nervous, scratchy outlines show ample command of hunman anatomy. Furthermore, the human body always takes center stage in Hess' posters, which gives them a curiously old masterish flavor. Tbe writhing poses of his muscular rock anti heroes are hints he is as aware of baroque and mannerist painting as he is of Superman and other comic book heroes.
The effectiveness of Hess' drawing is accentuated by his use of exaggerated perspectives, which simultaneously make his drawings leap off the page and pull viewers in. A case in point is a poster for a Jawbox concert which depicts a head on closeup view of a mastodon skull with curving ivory tusks that seem to thrust out of the drawing to embrace the viewer.
Then too, Hess' art is aided handsomely by the printmaking skilIs of Bryn Zellers, the Youngstown sculptor and printmaker who produces large, full color versions of Hess' posters. Most of Hess' original images are black and white, and small enough to copy on photocopy machines.
In the end, Hess' abundant skills are merely the means to an end. It is his fertile and decidedly dark imagination that captures and holds attention.
The show at (William) Busta (Gallery), which includes 32 rock posters and 10 prints and drawings not related to concerts, raise the question whether art inspired by up and coming bands can communicate outside the headbanging context of a rock music club. The answer, as the exhibition proves, is yes.
Hess' art is an authentic Cleveland phenomenon , and a significant element in the youth culture surrounding the city's rock music scene. Here's hoping a suite of his prints end up in a museum if not the Cleveland Museum of Art, then the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.
March 21, 1996
Derek Hess Makes Fine Art Pop
by Kymberli Hagelberg
Derek Hess may be every mother's nightmare. Not that he's not friendly,talented and almost Boy Scout polite; it's just that by definition, Hessblasts to pieces two cornerstones of maternal wisdom. Doodling in class willget you somewhere . and rock and roll can prepare you for the real world.
Sorry Ma, it all started with KISS.
"Oh man, I was drawing KISS posters," Hess says with a laugh, whilebusily paging through Steadman illustrations in a 50th anniversary reissueof ANIMAL FARM. "KISS all over my notebook. KISS all over my walls. I was injunior high when KISS was peaking and, boy, I knew about it.
"I was also drawing a lot of Aerosmith and Cheap Trick, and I was goingto concerts before a lot of my peers were because my dad was really cool,"he explains. "My first one was Queen's NEWS OF THE WORLD tour. In ablizzard, I thought, This is for me!," Hess recalls. Joking in falsetto, headds, "Only in a much higher voice. This is for me!"
Apart from the deepened register, Hess has grown into one of Northeast Ohio's best known artistswithout many other outward signs of change. He still loves rock and roll,but now his music-inspired art has graduated from study hall to the walls ofnight clubs and fine art galleries. Hess' second one-man show, "216: The RocArt Of Derek Hess," at the William Busta Gallery, will showcase some 40-oddnew posters created mostly to promote his other preoccupation, booking musicinto local clubs. Fittingly, the show begins with an opening nightreception, followed by a "reception after the reception" whereCleveland-based bands Craw and Throckmorton will perform.
Though Hess imagines he'll someday show his work only in galleries, fornow he doesn't see a time where he'll be ready to move beyond the bands heloves. "I'm still [booking] a little, because the bands are friends ofmine," Hess admits, then adds with a laugh. "I'm doing a show in Boston,which is at a gallery, but because of my history of being a promotor,everybody is still tuned in on that. So in Boston they said, 'By the way, wehave this room for you to book afterward .' So I'm booking the Middle Eastfor my own reception. Same thing in Omaha."
Beyond being a brilliant marketing tool for his art, liking the bandsHess draws is a prerequisite. So don't expect to see an upcoming Hess imageon posters for Bush, Red Hot Chili Peppers or the Dave Matthews band. Whatyou will see are a respectable number of posters promoting local andregional bands Hess supports. Dimbulb, Disengage and Howlin' Maggie all make appearances. Hess has also produced a companion comic book for the new Craw seven-inch, THE ADVENTURES OF CANCER MAN, which will get its formal release at the Euc following the reception.
"I don't do any bands I don't like," he says. "If I don't like themusic, I'll be lying about it when I produce the image. It won't come offstrong, and I think people will be able to read that into it.
"I've turned down a lot of stuff for different reasons," he continues."I turned down the Warped tour that's coming out now. It just sounded liketoo much garbage. Too much going back and forth between all the sponsors,the coordinators of the tour and the bands and their managers. I would havepulled what little hair I had out."
On the other hand, some headaches havebeen worth at least the object lesson. "The Rock Hall [grand opening poster]was something that was a very good gig to have. I have no regrets," he saysfrankly, "but I went into it without my eyes open, not realizing that thiswas a corporation and was going to be a pain in my ass."
Saying no, Hessadmits, is a blessing -- maybe a temporary one. "I might be singing adifferent tune a little farther down the line when my financialresponsibilities are different, but taking care of two cats and a beat upcar gives me the luxury to say no."
Knowing that the big business,commercialized-day-job world held no fascination for him is not news toHess. A brief period of hopping art schools validated his early instincts."When I was in school, I transferred to the Center for Creative Studies inDetroit thinking that I wanted to go immediately into graphics," heexplains. "About a semester into the work, I had a crisis of faith andrealized that I wanted to be a fine arts printmaker." About that time, Hessalso "sobered up and was able to walk through the door when I saw theopportunity." Soon after, he was back in Cleveland, and before long took the"starving artist job" at the Euclid Tavern which eventually evolved into asideline drawing posters to promote the bands he booked."
As his workbroadens beyond the flier stage to gallery shows, magazine covers (includingSCENE's 25th Anniversary Issue) and mentions in the national media, Hesssees his work as refining, rather than changing. "I think the drawing'sgetting better," he says, "though the actual themes have been prettyconsistent.
"I tend to like to keep the images more suggestive. I just read thisMarilyn Manson interview that said they thought everyone was so desensitizedthat you even had to hit people in the face more. I thought, No, wrong,you've got to go the other way. To get your point across, it's better tosuggest things." So when people approach him with the notion that SCENE's"Baby Man" is a pioneer in his coonskin cap or that the Rock Hall guyheroically surfacing from the depths of Lake Erie really symbolizesCleveland blue-collar victory over a snooty board of New York musicinsiders?
"I think a lot of my figures have an underlying feel of a struggle.It's been a struggle," Hess stresses. Smiling again, he adds, "If peoplepick that up from my work, then by God, that's what I meant to do."