by Jamie Cunningham
We are constantly bombarded with such an onslaught of imagery that the challenge of sifting through tired and unimaginative ideas becomes overwhelming. We yearn for artists with the stamina to consistently provide a bountiful cornucopia of exotica.
Hunt Slonem is such an artist. EXOTICA, as he quite poignantly exclaims, is what he is all about. The term pertains to unusually interesting objects, out of the ordinary and often foreign. Exotica not only encompasses what Hunt loves, but embodies who he is.
This obsession extends back to a childhood of changing environments and extensive travel. During his father’s naval career, the family was stationed in O’ahu, for a chunk of Hunt’s formative years. While there and, later, as an exchange student in Nicaragua, his fascination of wandering through tropical forests allowed his love of flora and fauna to flourish. This passion evolved with his art, and is still an inspiring source of his subject matter: birds, monkeys, butterflies and rabbits.
His grandfather was an artist and his family encouraged him to develop his talent. He knew early on that he would be an artist. By the 1970s and 1980s, he and several other New York artists were at the forefront of expanding the Neo-Expressionist movement. They rejected the over intellectualized post-WWII Abstract Expressionism by incorporating recognizable forms in vivid and occasionally jarring colors. A somewhat ambivalent emotional tone and purposeful lack of idealized subject matter resonates throughout his gestural work.
A nomadic citizen of the world, Hunt travels extensively to revitalize his soul and get close to avian muses. He has studied Western and Eastern religions; his early works depict Catholic saints and Hindu deities alongside animals. Once he felt he was running out of religious figures, he became more drawn to animals considered embodiments of God. Birds have been associated with the divine for millennia throughout many cultures and the beloved monkey is often symbolized as a spiritual protector.
His alla prima technique, hailing from the Dutch Masters, is a layering of oil paint on canvas. One must work at a vigorous pace to apply new layers before underlying ones dry. Hunt whittles the ends of his brushes to a sharp point to carve a grid into his work. This added textural element yields a cage-like effect.
Hunt has amassed multitudinous commercial success and accolades from prestigious art institutions worldwide. Sold out openings, including a recent Dubai show of 72 pieces, are not unheard of. His work has been catalogued in 9 lovely art books and he was recently bestowed an honorary award of achievement from the Russian Academy of Arts when inducted into Moscow’s Museum of Modern Art. He has been featured in many domestic museums and reaches young audiences with an interactive installation at the world’s largest Children’s Museum in Indianapolis.
He has gained further recognition through high profile public works. He was commissioned to create a mural that once spanned 87 square feet of the World Trade Center. Another huge 6-by-86 foot mural spans the dining room wall of Manhattan’s Bryant Park Grille. The piece is a spectacular collage of birds from many different works.
Hunt has managed to bring the jungle into our living rooms and our wardrobe. He has an exclusive line of bunny, butterfly and bird adorned fabrics and wallcoverings for Lee Joffa. Fashion designer Jason Wu had Hunt on his vision board for 14 years before incorporating his art into his line. Hunt’s personal style is flamboyantly chic. He pulls off vibrant eclectic mixes of color and pattern to truly stand out like a bird of paradise against our often drab urban surroundings.
Amidst our concrete jungle, he has developed a mini tropical ecosystem within his 30,000 square foot studio space in Brooklyn. It houses several varieties of orchids and other imported flora and is home to 50-100 feathered muses, all of whom have been passed on from those no longer able to care for the birds. He provides sanctuary for these lovely creatures and has a personal connection with each one. In turn for his dedicated care, they provide a constant source of inspiration.
Hunt calls himself a rabid collector and firmly adheres to the philosophy that if you love something you should have a lot of it. This, as well as his prolific creating, has led to a constantly expanding need for space. The studio is a labyrinth of rooms displaying his works and collections of everything from orchids to top hats, marble busts, antique furniture and gilded mirrors. He has an obsession for all things in the gothic revival style.
He also collects magnificent residences and currently owns seven, including two Louisiana plantations and an armory spanning a full city block in Scranton, PA. He believes houses pick their owners. He has become a historic preservationist as he stamps his own imprint onto each home, but keeps true to the structural integrity while filling them with his amazing personal effects. The renovation projects have become works of art among themselves and he considers the endeavors an extension of his art practice.
A significant and extremely disciplined artist, Hunt begins each day with warm up studies to establish a meditative groove to channel his energy. The subject matter is the iconic bunnies that have graced our collective psyche for almost 40 years. He has always felt a connection to rabbits, so it was no surprise to discover he was born in the Year of the Rabbit. His rabbits are a sort of ever evolving self-study.
After the initial bunny paintings, he begins to settle into deep studies of pattern allowing him to hone the craft of his work. Within the confines of repetition, he challenges himself to stay fresh, vital and relevant through constant innovation and experimentation. After almost 66 years of painting, he is still constantly inspired and amazingly consistent. The world to him is vast, yet small.