You Only Need to Know How to See and Hear to Understand – His Paintings Have a Sound
Hunt Slonem is one of those artists who are able to magically create an entire world with their art – a world that is expressive and bright. I also find colour in painting a key element in helping to transfer the message of the work to the audience, basically, in my view, it is more important than the story. This concept allows me to perceive quite a few similarities between my work and that of Hunt Slonem, although we have never met. Just like the White Rabbit in the story by Lewis Carroll, who takes Alice through the rabbit hole into a parallel reality, the bunnies painted by Slonem invite the viewer into the artist’s fragile inner world. And Slonem offers them to learn about him not only through his work, but also through his public persona, his studio and stories. He does not shy away from media attention. He offers tours into his studio and other properties, demonstrates to the world their splendid interiors as well as his wardrobe, his top hat, harp and porcelain collections. He speaks about his signature painterly style and gives passionate talks on topics such as numerology and horoscopes. Learning that, according to the Chinese horoscope, he was born in the year of the Rabbit, became an impulse for the image of the bunny to develop into a regular and recurring presence in Slonem’s paintings.
Birds, especially parrots, take up a special place in Slonem’s life and art. He feels an affinity to them. He calls them his best friends. In one interview, Slonem said,
“There are people who love lions and tigers, some prefer cats or dogs, but I adore birds. We have this inexplicable bond.”
Slonem developed his interest towards birds in early childhood, back when he lived in the Hawaii Islands with his family. His New York workshop is home to more than 70 parrot species. He saves those exotic birds from animal shelters, treats them and takes care of them, if necessary. No doubt, the presence of parrots in the artist’s studio delights Slonem and inspires him to create new art.
Another species to emerge in Slonem’s work among all the bunnies and the birds are butterflies. They are the freest of all the animals the artist depicts. Butterflies seem to be flying around the canvas, unaffected by gravitational pull. In Slonem’s art, butterflies represent the biodiversity of our world that is suffering from pollution.
Paintings by this American artist are usually described as neo-expressionism and frequently compared to the reproduced images of Andy Warhol. Clearly, Warhol’s art has had an impact on many an artist and has changed the public perception of repetition in art. Yet, I should say that merely quoting the connection between Warhol and Slonem’s creativity is a superficial reading at best. Although Slonem is not denying the impact of Warhol’s repeated motifs on his work, he is not trying to reproduce countless numbers of identical images. He paints bunnies, birds and butterflies as if they were similar, yet they all maintain their individuality conveyed in different gazes, expressions, postures and details. The rhythmical repetition of images and motifs more likely resembles the meditative essence of a mantra or a prayer, avoiding a simply decorative approach and emphasising the message of the piece.
As we examine Slonem’s work, we clearly see him as a bold artist who is not afraid of colour or expression and does not care to restrict himself – the artist is totally free both in his choice of subjects and colours, as well as in his seemingly chaotic but thoroughly deliberate compositions. Slonem’s paintings are just like his interiors, dress style and sculpture, where colour and ornament prevail. Loud colour combinations where the artist uses tonally similar, but contrasting hues such as blue and orange, green and red or purple and turquoise, may appear dissonant at first glance, and yet they work well. Colours start to play, and, with their help, Slonem discovers his romantic nature, bringing positivism and optimism into this world. Also, I am delighted by the artist’s admission that he likes to evoke positive emotions. His work brims with sparkling humour. By placing on canvas birds or butterflies that look as if they were about to take wing, Slonem creates patterns that resemble rhythmical notes in a score or a chorus, whose composer places the characters just where they need to be to create an ensemble and turn a picture into music that he shares with his audience. You only need to know how to see and hear, to understand that his paintings have a sound.
Slonem’s paintings are largely based on the act of painting itself, as he likes to apply colour not only by putting it on the canvas, but also by stripping it away. He compares this process of scraping lines or drawing silhouettes into the moist, thick colour applied in several layers to the process of weaving. In order to do so, Slonem uses both the handle of the brush and other objects, such as sticks. Vertical lines, in combination with parallel horizontal lines help achieve an impression that one is looking at a painting through the bars of a cage. By not showing its edges, the artist poses an open question about who exactly is in the cage – the images seen in the artwork or the viewer. With this approach, Slonem also blends the contours of shapes, making them look more airy, as if floating in a pale fog. The artist jokes that frequently visitors to his studio mistake lumps of colour accumulated on the easel and other objects for art. Also, his painterly brushstrokes and an almost calligraphic use of lines by changing the density and angle of the stroke are his particular hallmarks. The characteristic texture of Slonem’s paintings that reveals several layers of colour and changing lines are some of the key elements that bring his images to life.
Several factors have influenced the bright atmosphere and choice of extraordinary subjects in Slonem’s artworks, including travelling and frequent change of homes during childhood. The artist’s father was a marine officer, and the Slonem family had to relocate frequently due to his work. Among other not so exotic destinations, for several years the artist’s family resided in the Hawaii Islands whose exotic nature and vivid colours left a powerful and lasting impression on the young Slonem. Later, during his studies, endless love and affinity with exotic environments motivated Slonem to travel to Nicaragua as an exchange student, and later he also studied in Mexico.
Unusual compositions of bright colours in Slonem’s work is not all that is striking. Exoticism is also evident in the artist’s carefully cultivated persona. His bold choice of colour combinations and use of various ornaments in clothing truly fascinate me. Slonem’s creativity also stands out in the interiors of his home that he decorated himself. From the wallpapers he designed to his artworks and even the smallest interior objects he selected with great care.
The colourful world the artist creates in his work and shows the audience can be compared to such luminaries of art as Henri Matisse, Raoul Dufy or Pierre Bonnard, as well as to other Fauvists, all of whom emphasised the strong qualities of colour in their work. He can also be likened to Henri Rousseau, with his images of jungle and animals.
Hunt Slonem opens the door into the world of his art to the viewers, and I am certain that everyone who wants to get to know his work will perceive the power of colour and positive emotion.
Professor at the Art Academy of Latvia
Gallery name: Daugavpils Mark Rothko Art Centre
Address: Mihaila street 3, Daugavpils
Opening hours: Tue, Sun 11:00 - 17:00, Wed-Sat 11:00 - 19:00
Open: 03.07.2020 - 18.10.2020