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Artist Rachel Bess Blends Reality and Fantasy in Her Capitating Hyper-Realistic Paintings

The artist works in oil, applying multiple layers to give depth to her precisely rendered figures. Photos by Cale Hernandez

Phoenix artist Rachel Bess uses Old-World painting techniques to explore thoroughly modern themes.

If artist Rachel Bess was not making paintings, she might be working in a morgue—and that isn’t as morbid as it sounds. “I always wanted to do autopsies and solve mysteries as a kid,” she says. “I think those are things a lot of people are fascinated by.” 

As it happens, Bess wound up being an artist, but a look at her meticulously rendered paintings makes it clear that she’s still fascinated by the human form. “My paintings are nearly all figurative,” she says. “Even the still lifes often have some relation to the body.”

Bess’s realistic, dramatic oil paintings could almost be mistaken for works from the Renaissance, the 17th-century Dutch Golden Age, or maybe even the Gothic period. In its attention to composition and light, her art leans heavily on traditional old-school techniques. “I love the contrast between light and darkness, both physically and as a metaphor,” she says. “I think that contrast is what evokes the sense of antiquity.”

And yet in any given painting of a beautifully lit, precisely drawn figure, there will be something—a prop, an outfit, a subject’s attitude—that makes it clear this is the work of a contemporary artist.

“A lot of my works have things such as smoke, water or hair moving in the wind, something you capture in a moment and then it’s gone.”

—Rachel Bess, artist

1. “New Dimension,” oil on panel, 18″H by 15″W 2. “Spacetime Traveler,” oil on aluminum composite, 14″L  by 11″W 3. “Soft Skin and Fragile Light,” oil on panel, 5.5″L by 7.5″W 4. “Rise and Fall,” oil on aluminum composite, 10″L by 8″W 5. “Peeling Off the Darkness,” oil on panel, 18″L by 14.5″W

Bess’s paintings may be hyper-realistic, but they also have an element of fantasy that gives them a dreamlike quality. “I’m drawn to realism, but with a hint of sci-fi or magic or something not quite right,” she explains. “I like the freedom of doing something that is mostly realistic, but the physics, space, time or some other aspect of the compositions is made up, and it makes you tilt your head a little bit. I like the dynamic between realism and surrealism.”

The concept of impermanence also intrigues her, she says. “A lot of my works have things such as smoke, water or hair moving in the wind, something you capture in a moment and then it’s gone.”

Bess was raised in Tempe, the only child of parents who moved to the city from Missouri when she was an infant. “I now live in central Phoenix, so I haven’t gone too far,” she notes. After earning a bachelor’s in fine arts from Arizona State University in 2001, she decided to skip graduate school. “I saw people coming out of Master of Fine Arts programs and their work strongly emulated their advising professors,” she explains. “I didn’t want to take out a loan to do what someone else was doing.”

“Queen of Heartbreak,” oil on panel, 12"L by 21"W

Instead, she got a studio in downtown Phoenix and spent time visiting friends around the country. “I went to a lot of museums and made my own MFA,” she says. “It was much less expensive and more enjoyable.”

The majority of the models Bess works with are women, although that’s not necessarily by design. “It may have something to do with the way women tend to present themselves,” she suggests. “They’re less shy, less uncomfortable with moving their bodies in visually inspiring ways.”

That most of those women come across as strong characters is, however, the result of conscious effort on her part. “It’s important for women to show that side of them. I think, since every painting is something of a self-portrait, it reflects the way I prefer to be seen.”

Occasionally, she’ll paint an actual self-portrait, such as “Death and the Maiden,” in which she gazes impassively at the viewer while holding a human skull.
Ashley Anderson, associate director of Phoenix’s Lisa Sette Gallery, which has represented Bess for a dozen years, says a large part of the appeal of her work is its sense of intimacy. “You feel an interaction with the subject,” she says, “and the faces and figures are so enigmatic, you’re just arrested when you’re in front of them.”

When she’s not painting, Bess operates Electric Bat Arcade, the biggest pinball arcade in Arizona and quite possibly the only one on Earth owned by a woman. She loves what she calls her other part-time job and enjoys spending time repairing pinball machines. “It’s a really good balance,” she says. “Using that engineering side of your brain frees up the art side.”

Most days, she rises early and paints, then goes to the arcade in the afternoon. “Painting,” she says, “always comes first.”


Artist: Rachel Bess, Phoenix, Represented by: Lisa Sette Gallery, Phoenix,


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