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the Worlds of Hunt Slonem


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“Let There Be Light,” Nahas shows how Slonem works with and invokes light in his art, using techniques that allow light

D ominique Nahas


to refract, multiply, and radiate, exhilarating the senses. “Portrait Room: Saints, Bodhisattvas, and the Celebrated”

the Worlds of Hunt Slonem

is devoted to his post-Modernist approach to portraiture and includes his renderings of icons of the church (Saint Francis), Hollywood (Rudolph Valentino), and the American Republic (Abraham Lincoln); much of his knowledge of his subjects is derived from his intercession with their spirits in his regular meetings with mediums. The monograph culminates with an appraisal of Slonem’s latest work. Illustrated with some 600 full-color images, this vibrant celebration of Hunt Slonem’s prodigious body of work concludes with a biographical timeline, an extensive listing of his solo exhibitions and the public collections that hold his work, and a selected bibliography. Dominique Nahas is an independent curator and critic. He has written for numerous art magazines, including Art in America, ArtNews, Sculpture, Art On Paper, dArt International, Flash Art, Paris Photo, Art Asia-Pacific, Review, TRANS, and others. He teaches critical studies and art history at Pratt Institute and at the New York Studio Program, where he is a critique faculty member. Additionally, he is critic-in-residence at the Hoffberger Graduate School at Maryland Institute College of Art. The Vendome Press 1334 York Avenue New York, NY 10021 Distributed in North American by Abrams Books Distributed outside North America by Thames & Hudson, Ltd. Jacket design by Patricia Fabricant


he evolution of Hunt Slonem, enfant terrible of New York’s art world, is the subject of this comprehensive retrospective. The multiple themes of his art—exotic birds, bugs, rabbits,

the Worlds of Hunt Slonem dominique nahas

butterflies, monkeys, voodoo saints, Abraham Lincoln, to name but a few—swirl giddily about this abundantly illustrated volume. Profuse. Profound. Transcendent. Jubilant. In his life as in his art, Hunt Slonem is all of these things and more. He is an inveterate collector of the inanimate (chandeliers, furniture, candlesticks, even plantations) and animate (a menagerie of exotic birds), and his art, too, is accumulative; a governing principle of his painting and sculpture is multiplicity—of subject and of pattern. In The Worlds of Hunt Slonem author Dominique Nahas delves deep beneath the decorative surface of Slonem’s work to reveal the fascinating sources of and influences on his art. A biographical first chapter examines the places in which he lived and worked in his youth, from his boyhood in Hawaii to a formative sojourn in Nicaragua as a teenager to his training at Tulane University, and shows how his early experiences impacted his development as an artist. The second presents a visual lexicon of the innumerable creatures he has obsessively celebrated in his paintings, including rabbits, ocelots, tigers, monkeys, butterflies, moths, turtles, fish, and insects, and explores the exquisite interplay between otherworldliness and familiarity in his work. A full chapter is devoted to perhaps his most prolific and beloved subject—birds: cockatoos, toucans, finches, macaws, magpies, mynahs, whydahs, groove-billed barbets, rhinoceros hornbills, and other rarities. “The Cage/ The Grid: Structure as Image” focuses on his painting techniques and his use of grids, repetitive patterning,

jacket: Stream II, 1999, oil on canvas, 49 x 72 in. (see pp. 76–77). Printed in China

and multiples as an organizing principle of expressivity. In

us $90.00 can $102.50


continued on back flap

The Worlds of Hunt Slonem


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\e Worlds of Hunt Slonem dominique nahas

The Vendome Press

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Contents Set Out on a Journey


Biodiversity, Connection, Empathy


The Question of Birds


The Cage/The Grid: Structure as Image


Let There Be Light


Portrait Room: Saints, Bodhisattvas, and the Celebrated


Multiplicity and Diversity in Hunt Slonem’s Work


notes chronology acknowledgments

276 278 288


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ver the course of his nearly thirty - year career

Hunt Slonem has

searched for spiritual nourishment and visual enrichment in a variety of ways. It has been a journey of self-realization and self-manifestation through art and devotional practices, as well as through extensive travel. He has traveled all over the globe—Japan, Haiti, Central and South America, India—but it was the trips he took during his formative years that were most crucial to his intellectual and artistic growth, emotional maturity, and cosmopolitanism. He spent several years in Hawaii as a child, a year as a high-school exchange student in Managua, Nicaragua, where he attended the Colegio Centro América (1968), and a year as a college student at the Universidad de las Américas in Cholula, Mexico (1971). These experiences allowed Slonem to contextualize his American upbringing, heightening his awareness and appreciation not only of the cultural differences between countries but also of the breadth of biodiversity found in the Americas. The artist was born in 1951 in Kittery, Maine, the son of a naval officer, a submariner. The oldest of four siblings—he has two sisters and a brother—Hunt was alone in his pursuit of the natural world and keen observation of textures, colors, and living forms. As a child in Hawaii, he had nine parakeets and slept on the lanai to be close to them. The artist’s memories of the place are persistent and seminal. As he recalls, the exhibits at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu held an inexhaustible fascination for him:

Saint Rose of Lima, 1983 Oil on paper 44 x 30 in.


I was always involved with the sense of myth as a child. I remember the trips to the Bishop Museum to see the king’s cloaks. The mambo bird feathers were plucked only from the backside of these birds and then the natives released them. It took three hundred years to complete one cloak and they are still pretty much intact.1 The artist has identified with and has been inspired by what he terms the exotic. Past critical commentary on Slonem’s work has gone to some length to interpret what the term means to the artist when he refers to it or applies it to his work. Some observers have suggested that he equates it with the uncanny, in the Freudian sense, that is, the re-experiencing of something considered lost or dead or forgotten that is entombed in the unconscious and somehow reencountered and recognized in conscious life, often in an inadvertent way. Other critics have likened his use of exotic to that of othering, alienating, or distancing, a precept at the heart of all modern, that is,


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avant-garde, aesthetics, as expounded by the early-twentieth-century Russian formalists (priem ostraneniya, “device of making strange”), the Surrealists (dépaysement, “disorientation”), and Bertolt Brecht (verfremdung, “distancing”). By exoticizing the world, manifesting it as “other,” art challenges our perceptions of the everyday,2 forcing us to reconsider our point of view. For Slonem, the enchantment of defamiliarization was strengthened during his stay in Managua. For his going-away gift, his Nicaraguan “mother,” Maria Lourdes de Sacasa, gave him the jaw of a saw-toothed shark, the hide of an ocelot, and the skin of a sixteen-foot anaconda.3 His attendance at the Universidad de las Américas in Cholula, Mexico, after his freshman year at Vanderbilt in Nashville, Tennessee, allowed him to experience the mythic past in one of the Aztecs’ holy cities. Viewing the layered histories of the Latin American countries’ indigenous and colonial cultures, including key archaelogical sites such as the Great Pyramid of Cholula, through a postmodern, postcolonialist lens, Slonem grew sensitized to the underpinnings of conflicting social practices in Latin America, particularly in Mexico. His recollections of his explorations would be the emotional source of a series of large-scale, vibrant paintings of pre-Columbian ceremonial objects produced between 1978 and 1986. Rendered in gold paint and Day-Glo colors, these striking depictions of gold vessels excavated from Aztec and Mayan ruins glisten. Several of the paintings feature golden artifacts shaped as hands. Standing upright in the pictorial space, these ancient forms seem to be imploring the gods in the heavens. Positioning them in this way, it is as if Slonem is reminding himself, as well as the viewer, of his ongoing source of power, of the transfigurative energies of the prototypical painter’s touch. While in Cholula, Slonem became acquainted with the energetic mural work of Diego Rivera in the Cortez Palace in nearby Cuernavaca, as well as with Frida Kahlo’s self-portrait with her spider monkey, Fulang-

Janet Fish

Hunt’s Monkey, 1990

Oil on canvas 70 x 48 in. Courtesy of the artist


Monkeys, 1990 Oil on canvas 8 x 8 in. right Frida Kahlo

Fulang-Chang and I, 1937 Oil on composition board with painted mirror frame 22¼ x 17³⁄8 x 1¾ in. The Museum of Modern Art, NY

Chang, in the Robert Brady Museum, also in Cuernavaca. The artist’s own identification with the animal world persists to this day and forms the touchstone of his art. In 1972, while a junior in college, Slonem was admitted to the prestigious Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture (a nine-week intensive summer program in Skowhegan, Maine); he finished his formal studies in the fine arts at Tulane University in 1973, initiating a life-long admiration for New Orleans, its cultural history, and its environs. After a stint in the summer of 1973 at the Banff School of Fine Art in Alberta, Canada, the artist moved to New York City to begin his professional career. Living and working south of the East Village and east of SoHo, Slonem was part of the evolving (or revolving-door) art scene, which provided a slipstream of painting cliques, circles, and clubs that flitted in and out of the public’s consciousness through the 1970s and 1980s. Slonem was affected by all of them: the P+D (Pattern and Decoration) movement, the New Romantics, the Neo-Expressionists, Neo-Geo, and the East Village scene. Yet he retained his own center, using personal ritual as part of his work and developing his own

cultus around his practice. A constant seeker of mystical truths, he entered into numerous associations with systems of transcendental thought, including a study of the Keys of Enoch. A devotee of Eastern devotional practices, Slonem has, over the years, made several pilgrimages to Indian ashrams, was an accolyte of Gurumayi Chidvilasananda, and is currently following the teachings of Mother Meera. Yet there is a flamboyant sensualist living in the soul of Hunt Slonem, who is enthralled by all sorts of bigger-than-life experiences. As much as he delves into the natural world and its marvels, he revels in the world of theatricality and artifice. A lover of spectacle and excess, he has derived great inspiration from the film Moulin Rouge, the careers of Siegfried and Roy, the theatrical effluences of James Bidgood, the glammy artifice of artists Pierre and Gilles, and the photography of Marcus Leatherdale and David La Chapelle. By the late seventies, the artist had made a home for himself while keeping at some remove from what was going on around him. Situated on Houston Street near the Bowery, his live-work loft functioned as both an important stimulator for his imagina-

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tion and a retreat from the outside world. Over time the artist filled it and subsequent work spaces with a variety of collections: exotic birds and plants, Blenko glass vessels, seashells, Gothic Revival chairs, chandeliers, nineteenth-century marble busts, and antique frames rescued from nearby dumpsters or bought in quantities from local flea markets. As word spread about the forty-foot-long walk-in aviary and multifaceted collections that filled his Bowery loft, it took on nearly legendary status. What was evident was that the artist’s environment was a crucial aspect of his creativity; being surrounded by its sights, sounds, and textures sharpened his powers of observation and discernment and served as a source of wonderment at the multiplicity and variety of cultural and natural forms. By the early nineties Hunt Slonem had exhibited a great number of paintings whose subject matter seemed antithetical to the kind of work being produced in New York at the time. Neo-Expressionism had taken root in the 1980s, and Slonem’s individualized works with their intense, brushy colors and congested surfaces certainly fit the late-twentiethcentury expressionist bill to a great extent. There was, however, something singularly at odds with what his peers were painting and what the mainstream art media deemed acceptable and fashionable at the time. Perhaps it had to do with Slonem’s essentially devotional mindset. Such spiritual fervor did not square with the New York art world’s blasé attitudes, self-centered ironies, and intellectual posturings. That being said, Slonem found kindred spirits in, and felt emotional affinities with, artists such as Francesco Clemente, Richmond Burton, Martha Diamond, Janet Fish, and Roberto Juarez in their use of sensuous surfaces, rich symbolism, and sultry mark-making acumen, which imbued their work with a sense of otherworldliness.4 This tendency to embrace the sensuously exotic, the otherworldly, and the mystical, whether through travel, accumulating inspirational materials for his burgeoning Wunderkammer, regular sessions with psychics, or the work of his professional peers,

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has pervaded Slonem’s practice. Certainly an openness to a personal encountering of myth, allegory, the multicultural, and the historical in contemporary painting had been well under way in SoHo by the early 1980s. Slonem’s artwork, with its directness and raw brushwork, reminded viewers of the vestigial handling of the human form, and its primitivistic intensity and fervor caught the eye of the public and the critics alike.5 His portraits of New World saints began in the early eighties and culminated in the late eighties. During this period he made numerous renditions of Saint Niño de Atocha (thirteenth century), Saint Martin de Porres (1579–1639), Saint Rose of Lima (1586–1617), Kateri Tekakwitha (1656–1680), and Dr. Gregorio Hernandez. Slonem’s series of Christian saints and healers, as well as of angels, was matched by an equally ambitious program of painting a panoply of Hindu divinities. Viewing this body

Self-Portrait, 1991 Oil on canvas 30 x 26 in.

of work, the overall feeling is one of celebration, of cultural dualities existing in a world of hope and beauty. Whereas some of these works are painted loosely and fancifully, others are rendered stiffly and in environments that appear to be motionless and flat. By the late eighties Slonem had perfected his method of exhibiting his New World saints paintings: he would have the exhibition walls of the gallery or museum venue painted in intense colors, use distinctive frames made of found objects, faux malachite, aged floral plaster, or intensely gilded wood to encase each work, and hang them salon style, positioning one painting above another. This elaborate presentation technique heightened the cultic aura around each work. Slonem was so entranced by the histories and legends of the New World saints and healers he was painting that he became fully invested in portraying each sacred entity with care, depicting his or her particular attribute, whether a detail of clothing, an object held, or a conventionalized environment that immediately contextualizes the venerated saint’s life and the miracles performed. Dressed in hat and elaborate cloak and holding a basket of food or roses in one hand and supported by his staff in the other, Niño de Atocha was a small pilgrim boy who gave food, water, and wood to captured Spanish prisoners in the town of Atocha, activities strictly forbidden by the Moors, who had overtaken the town. He was legendary for guiding displaced persons safely along dangerous roads far beyond Atocha. Saint Martin de Porres built orphanages and devoted himself to the sick and the lame. He was noted for his mystical powers of levitation, bilocation, curing the sick, and connecting and communicating with animals. His saint’s attribute is the broom, which represents his attitude toward the dignity of labor no matter how menial. He is shown with a mouse, a cat, and a dog eating together, symbolic of peaceful cooperation. Canonized in 1962, Saint Martin has a fascinating background: born in Lima, Peru, he was a lay Dominican brother whose mother was a black Panamanian freedwoman and whose father

was a Spanish soldier. He is the patron saint of bi-racial people, African Americans, hotelkeepers, and hairdressers. Admired for her life of devotion and poverty, Saint Rose of Lima, a friend of Saint Martin’s, was canonized as a saint of the New World, patron of South America and the Philippines. A mystic, she was a member of the Dominican Order. Kateri Tekakwitha, considered a miracle worker, was the first Native American proposed for sainthood. Beatified in 1980, she is the patron saint of exiles and environmentalists. Known as Lily of the Mohawks, she was the offspring of a Christian Algonquin woman. Kateri converted to Christianity in 1676 after being captured by the Iroquois and married to a non-Christian Mohawk chief. Slonem has painted Dr. Gregorio Hernandez numerous times, following the customary depictions of the holy man wearing his suit and hat. An educated doctor from Venezuela who treated the destitute for free, Hernandez traveled to France to study pathology and bacteriology. By 1891 he had become professor of medicine at the Central University of Venezuela and wrote scientific books as well as a book of philosophy. After his death he appeared to doctors offering healing advice and spiritual assistance. Already beatified by the Roman Catholic Church, Dr. Hernandez will become the patron saint of Venezuela and of medical students and doctors once he is canonized. Hunt Slonem’s powerful painting Seven Saints, 1985–87, (pp. 32–33), encompasses the artist’s belief in greater world commonality, commitment to spiritual awareness, and reverence for the environment and its creatures, as well as his deep attachment to Latin America, its peoples and histories. A monumental, quadripartite work, Seven Saints asserts its hold on the eye and the imagination of the viewer with tender force. A deeply and marvelously hopeful work, it is a dynamic group portrait of Christ, Saint Martin de Porres, Dr. Gregorio Hernandez, Niño de Atocha, Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, Saint Francis of Assisi, and the Virgin Mary in a jungle setting dense with

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exotic plants, palm fronds, creepers, flowers, tigers, cockatoos, geese, an alligator, fish, and a deer standing on its hind legs. The figures and creatures face the viewer directly, a Peaceable Kingdom type of assembly, in a confrontational surge of ekstasis and equanimity. On the far right of the work, the congested scenery gives way to an opening where all the tension so meticulously ratcheted up through Slonem’s incremental layering of colors and vibratory brush marks6 is released, and a promise of repose and of infinite possibility emerges through the image of water flowing toward the horizon and blue skies in the distance. There is a vividness to Seven Saints that is as hallucinatory as it is poetic and vital. It is the mixture of overloaded sensations and provocative delirium that gives this panoramic work (and others like it) its edge and exuberance. As one observer writes: Instead of despairing over our increasing alienation from nature, the artist posits a utopian fantasy of harmony and truce. It is not a naïve assertion, as some viewers may think. It is a remarkable act of generosity and faith in mankind’s better nature. 7 Through its wide exposure in traveling exhibitions around the United States Seven Saints signaled Slonem’s desire to acknowledge, in his own way, kinship with the visionary and spiritual strands of art that laid the foundation of the early avant-garde movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Such occult and mystical traditions affected artists from Paul Gauguin, Odilon Redon, and Maurice Denis to abstract pioneers Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, Hilma af Klint, and others. These visual trailblazers embraced what Malevich termed “intuitive reasoning,” a state of mind inspired by yoga of the Vedanta School as taught by Vivekananda,8 who, in turn, was an inspiration for Russian-based spiritualist P. D. Ouspensky. Such artists were also influenced by Swedenborgian mysticism, as well as by the writings of William James, Henri Bergson, and Helena P. Blavatsky, the founder of the Theosophical Society in 1875. Activities generated through spiritualist movements were

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further instigated by German theosophical leader Rudolf Steiner and British theosophists Annie Besant and Charles W. Leadbeater. It is fair to say that Slonem’s approach to life and art was seen as being on a different plane from that of those around him. In his search for deep connections, he had identified and connected with epiphenomenal aspects of the sacred, the numinous, and the strange through what appeared to be an unusual choice—and mix—of subjects: saints and animals and flora. By the late eighties a new subject will turn his attention away from the saints. He will gaze at the avian community that had settled in his Bowery loft and begin to notice possibilities.

top 45th Street studio, New York, 2010 Photograph by Adam Reich above Hunt Slonem dressed as George Washington in front of Skins,1985 Photograph by Chris Makos opposite Skins, 1982 Oil on canvas 80 x 80 in.

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≤ 13


Saint Kit, 1976 Oil on canvas 60 x 72 in.


Panda and Anteater, 1975

Oil on canvas 60 x 70 in.

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Chair Duet, 1974 Oil on canvas 50 x 54 in.


Groove-Billed Barbet, 1978

Oil on canvas 60 x 70 in.

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≤ 15

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top left Pyramid, 1978 Oil on canvas 72 x 80 in.

top right Siren, 1979 Oil on canvas 48 x 48 in.

bottom left Cholula, 1975 Oil on canvas 30 x 20 in.

bottom right Minotaur, 1975 Oil on canvas 77 x 101 in.

Savior, 1979

Oil on canvas 86 x 86 in.

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opposite top left

Lake Atitlan Visitation, 1983 Oil on paper 44 x 30 in.


opposite top right Rumble Fish, 1983 Oil on paper 44 x 30 in. opposite bottom Treasures, 1983 Oil on canvas 44 x 66 in. above

Plunder (Triptych), 1987 Oil on canvas 90 x 90 in.


Montezuma’s Ransom, 1986

Oil on canvas 80 x 80 in.

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top left Fantails, 1978 Watercolor on paper 12 x 12 in.

top right

center left Opium, 1976 Oil on canvas 48 x 48 in.

center right Shubunken, 1977 Oil on canvas 50 x 60 in.

bottom left Celestial, 1974 Oil on canvas 10 x 16 in.

bottom right

Untitled (Goldfish), 1977 Oil on canvas 16 x 20 in.

Shubunken Fantail,

1976 Oil on canvas 36 x 36 in.

opposite Fantail, 1978 Oil on canvas 84 x 72 in.

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The Worlds of Hunt Slonem  
The Worlds of Hunt Slonem  

Profuse. Profound. Transcendent. Jubilant. In his life as in his art, Hunt Slonem is all of these things and more. Publication: November 201...