Clevelanders first became familiar with artist Derek Hess' distinctive visual vocabulary when he deployed his sinewy, struggling figures and unsettling angels and cherubs to illustrate the music of the dark, threatening bands he promoted at the old Euclid Tavern. As he evolved from flyers to concert posters to fine-art drawings, he used similar visual language less specifically, to describe conflicted emotional states and inner struggles.
In December 2006, however, Hess threw out a surprise. For the final show at 1300 Gallery, owned by his manager Marty Geramita, Hess turned his attention from inner demons to outer demons. In Please God Save Us From Your Followers, He redeployed and expanded that vocabulary in a series of works that commented on the hijacking of America by the religious right and the Republican party. Inspired by some religious tracts he found - as well as his own rage at right-wing greed and authoritarianism - he'd morphed into a political cartoonist of sorts, albeit a highly sophisticated one who tackles broad concepts rather than specific incidents. He refers to this work as "Republican-based art." It felt natural, an extension of the anti-authoritarianism that always underlaid Hess' work.
Since then, Hess has amplified that work, exploring in more detail what's been done to this country by the current administration. He's gathered that work, plus essays by local progressive activist Kent Smith, in a new softbound book titled Please God Save Us.
Smith's essays basically sum up what lefties have been telling each other for years. He's preaching to the converted. But he articulates well the assaults from the right that have galvanized progressives and expanded their ranks in the last eight years: the attempts by religious groups to impose the teaching of intelligent design and oppose stem-cell research; the war in Iraq; America's addiction to oil; homophobia; greed; the despoiling of the environment. It's articulate and even occasionally witty, as when he says in his discussion of solar energy, "With the exception of Vice President Cheney's cave, the sun shines everywhere."
But the real meat of the book is Hess' art. With a limited palette - mostly browns brushed with sickly yellows and ominous reds - he uses a red elephant to symbolize the aspects of the right he hates. That elephant is the central player in a world of polluting smokestacks, crosses and "crosstikas," skulls, angry angels, prehistoric fossils, Jesus fish, and crucified, dead and dying figures, depicted in richly textured drawings that crackle with tension, in some cases incorporating the original tracts that inspired the work. In one particularly striking drawing, a man floating facedown in a sea of oil dominates the foreground, while three red elephants bray in the background, in front of a dusky landscape of smokestacks and a figure crucified on a crosstika. Another holds out the potential for the triumph of sanity: Under a strip of hopeful blue sky dotted with white clouds, a footed fish labeled "Darwin" stands astride a dead red elephant that floats on the surface of a gray sea. Its underwater view, the bulk of the drawing, shows a figure on a cross and a school of dying Jesus fish settling to the seabed to join a pile of tires.
Not just another addition to the mountain of anti-Bush books the last eight years have generated, Please God Save Us will stand as a powerful visual commentary on the current era long after George Bush has irrevocably entered history books as America's worst president ever.
Please God Save Us, by Derek Hess and Kent Smith. Strhess Press, 100 pp, $25. Hess and Smith sign copies during Ingenuity 2-6 p.m., Saturday July 26, 1240 Huron Road Mall.