Jessica Hess Captures the Beauty of Grit


In 2011, visual artist Jessica Hess debuted a show called It Finds You. An avid appreciator of street art, Hess named it after the idea that street art finds its viewers, inserting itself into the urban landscape to shake up the routine. In the interaction between street art and its surroundings, Hess finds inspiration for her work.

She often travels with a camera in hand, snapping shots of scenes that attract her. Many of these include bright pieces of graffiti, overlapping tags that transform a wall or empty pool. 

[jump] Originally from North Carolina — a mostly graffiti-free space where she once combed through her entire town “for one little stencil,” which turned out to be partially buffed — Hess graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design and has exhibited her work everywhere from L.A. to Montreal.

Her oil-on-canvas pieces depict scenes with a startling realness. Hess uses the paintbrush to her whim, often depicting gritty details like a crumbling wall juxtaposed with a delicate stream of sunlight on the same canvas. In her snapshots of abandoned and dilapidated spaces, viewers can find a certain beauty both in the natural environment and the graffiti covering the area.

Hess was “very hesitant” at first to depict the work of graffiti and street artists in her pieces but as she met more artists, she found they were flattered to have their work included in her pieces. The works are Hess’s way of paying homage to artists and the graffiti scene.

“I want to promote it,” Hess said. “I want to preserve it. It’s just one more place for them to get up. It’s like ‘Ooh, look, now I’m in a painting.’”

Her renditions of these spaces can take hours to complete because of her close attention to detail, something that makes each piece “more significant than anyone taking a simple digital photograph.” Though she uses photography as her source material, she prefers the term ‘hyper-real’ to 'photo-real' because of the way she omits certain details (like bits of trash) and amps up the saturation of certain colors. 

Hess puts a painstaking amount of effort into recreating each graffiti tag, figure and scrawl. With just the right amount of paint — and the correct brush — she works to mimic the texture not only of the original design but also the surface underneath it. But committing to a hyper-real rendition of each tag also means paying attention to the nuances in each letter, each curve.

“It’s difficult to recreate them,” said Hess. “[For] some of them it’s not just the application of the paint, it’s the design itself. These are very complex works something that I am trying to transfer, to translate.” 

In her current solo show at Hashimoto Contemporary, More is More, Hess has been experimenting with new compositions, namely through layering. Her new pieces seem to be made up of different superimposed images coming together to form one scene.

“I shoot a bunch of photos and I come home and I collage them together, and sometimes those collages are really exciting,” Hess said. “So I started to preserve areas where the actual photos overlapped and I let that cause divisions and geometric break-ups between the work. I think this is all kind of headed, tiptoeing towards abstraction.”

For her next show, Hess hopes to take the opposite approach and focus on a “less is more” approach. Although she’s known for scenes with large amounts of graffiti, there are plenty of quiet places she hopes to paint, too.

“I’ve always been attracted to places that were buffed or minimal — construction sites, places that offer interesting buildings and configurations but without the additional flare of graffiti,” said Hess. “I’ve been photographing these minimalistic places for about ten years, you know. I’ve got files of stuff just ready to go.”

More is More, through Aug. 22, at Hashimoto Contemporary, 804 Sutter, 415-655-9265


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