Hunt Slonem is an artist known for his neo-expressionist paintings, his unique sense of style and his larger than life personae. Since 1977, he has been featured in more than 300 shows in galleries and museums worldwide; his paintings have been collected by more than 100 museums and there have been many books have been published about him and his art. But more important than all of this, Hunt Slonem is simply a phenomenon.
But to understand what Hunt has actually done, you first need a little insight into the contemporary art world. The art world is actually made up of many art worlds with the players adhering to different ideologies. The following is a simplifiedoverview of how it works. At the very top are the avant-garde artists whose work dominates the important museum and private collections worldwide. They make work with a strong social focus and use lots of new media. Just below it are the artists who have a more classic aesthetic, but who have also attained a high-level of international recognition. This is where most painters would fall.
Underneath this is a wide range of artists who make strong work in various styles and show in respected galleries. They are primarily known in certain markets but a few of them will one day rise to the top. There is also a group of artists who look much further afield. These are artists that we have traditionally called self-taught, outsider, primitive or urban, and some of them are extremely successful. A good example is the New Orleans artist George Rodrigue known for his blue dog paintings. Dropping down another step are the artists whose reputations are primarily commercial. They make art for specific markets such as interior design and hotels and they follow the latest trends in style, themes and color palettes. At the base are the artists who are just getting started or those who are mostly hobbyists. However, once in a while an artist comes along who blurs the lines and shakes up how things are being done. Andy Warhol is a prime example of this type of artist, but so is Hunt Slonem.
From the start, Hunt’s work was vibrant, exotic and different. As a child, he lived in Hawaii for a while, then, in high school, he was an exchange student in Nicaragua, where he came face to face with nature and two of his enduring themes: butterflies and birds. In fact, his most recent book is titled “Birds”. Then in college, Hunt spent six months in Puebla, Mexico. The cumulative effect of these experiences is his attitude towards nature and his vibrant color.
As a student at the prestigious Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine, Hunt came in contact with many highly respected artists. From them he developed an understanding of craft and culture which he took with him when he moved to New York City in 1973. Three years later he received an art grant and began painting full-time. It wasn’t long before he was an established member of the New York art scene and in the early 1980s he began painting his now famous bunnies.
Hunt is also spiritualist with deep connections to the metaphysical world. He has painted images of saints, consulted with mediums who’ve advised him and he has developed his own rituals. One of these is to start each day by painting bunnies and whether Hunt is repeating an image or crosshatching his paintings with hundreds upon hundred of lines, repetition is important to Hunt’s art and it functions much like a mantra attuning him to a higher level of consciousness.
No discussion of Hunt would be complete without talking about he lives. He has a 35,000 square foot, fully decorated studio in Brooklyn where he keeps an aviary of 30 to 70 exotic birds at any time. He also owns four historic homes which he has restored and decorated in his inimitable style. Here he hangs his paintings in antique frames he has collected alongside his collections of antique furniture, antique porcelains and other antique objets. In fact, Hunt lives in a kind of modernized antique world, one that is both contemporary but also a throw-back to the Aesthetic Movement of the late 19th century.
The Aesthetic Movement, which was also known as the Cult of Beauty, believed that art should be beautiful, evoke sensual pleasure and create mood and atmosphere. The artists believed that art didn’t need to have a deep or hidden meaning, and this is where we get the expression “art for art’s sake”. They also believed that art should be hung in the right setting and favored interiors that were sumptuous and decorative.
Today, beauty gets a pretty bad rap in the upper echelons of the contemporary art world. Yet Hunt has achieved his success by proving that beauty is still a source of innovation and inspiration and audiences still need it. Looking to explain how this phenomenon has occurred, I want refer to Jean-Luc Marion, one of today’s most thought provoking philosophers.
Marion’s work focuses on what he calls “saturated phenomena” and by building on the ideas of other philosophers, but also religion, he argues that saturated phenomena transcend our understanding of the possible and become reality without becoming the object of our subjectivity. In other words, a saturated phenomenon is akin to a revelation. And as you can imagine, creative individuals open to higher states of consciousness would be inclined to this type of experience, and I think we should consider all artistic masterpieces in this light.
Commenting on Marion’s ideas, Christina Gschwandtner writes: “Marion defines the artist as the one who has had a vision of the unseen and is able to communicate this vision in the painting, which gives what was previously unseen to full visibility. Instead of being an object we impartially observe, it is instead a given phenomenon that overwhelms us with the impact it has on us.”
With so many aspects of Hunt’s life infused with artistry, it’s important that I point out that his paintings stand apart. Let me explain.
Paint is a very humble medium and by combining it with a few other supplies, artists can create whatever they imagine. In other words, they don’t need technology, engineering, manufacturing or lots of money to carry out their creative fantasies like most of us do. Yet, only a few us will become artists and even fewer will be go on to be recognized as important. But only one artist has brushed, textured and layered paint into awe-inspiring images of bunnies, birds, butterflies, flowers, landscapes and figures for more than four decades to international acclaim.
TEW Galleries is honored to represent the amazing, iconoclastic Hunt Slonem and we hope you’ll come visit us very soon.
- Timothy Tew
To write this blog, I have referred to the essay “Unsolved Slonem” by Anton Uspensky written for the catalogue for Hunt Slonem’s 2017 show at the State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg.