Epiphanies are inevitable in life, but most of us usually don’t become artists because of them. On the other hand, certain epiphanies can be essential to sparking artists, to pushing them in a particular direction. Picture, for instance, a sensitive boy with an lively curiosity and an active imagination. One day his father takes him to an anthropological museum in Hawaii. As he wanders the passages and rooms, gazing at the heaps of strange and foreign goodies, he stops in front of a peculiar display. Inside he sees a voluminous cape consisting of 80,000 red rump feathers from the extinct tropical mamo bird. Will he remember this moment years later? And how will he recall the cape’s magnificent crimson presence?
That young boy is now a mid-career artist named Hunt Slonem; the Tennessee State Museum has assembled a mini-retrospective of his oil paintings, beginning with a series from the early 1980s and running up to the present. The garish fluorescent colors that greeted visitors to the gallery’s “Elvis+Marilyn” exhibition remain on the walls, competing with and amplifying Slonem’s already vivid color sense. The show’s chronology is reversed, so that a visitor walking into the space strolls past the most recent images first. It’s an unusual way to display a retrospective and, taken with the recycled paint on the wall, perhaps less than ideal. But the initial images are so catchy, and Slonem such an unknown commodity here, that this reverse-chronological arrangement was inevitable.
“Gold” is Slonem’s earliest series and clearly shows both his strengths and weaknesses as a painter. They’re compelling pictures on a 8-by-10-foot scale containing a rich array of yellows, ambers, and ochres, with accents of almost fluorescent blues, greens, and oranges. The imagery consists of all kinds of fascinating clutter: pre-Columbian gold sculptures and vessels piled up like driftwood in overlapping compositions. To hear the artist tell it, his fascination with the imagery stems partly from an interest in alchemythe medieval “science” of changing base materials into gold. But the paint handling here is merely illustrational; it’s thin and anemic, understating the visual intensity of the actual objects.
Slonem is not what you would call a skilled draftsmanhis drawing skills with paint are actually quite suspect, although they’re masked by the splashy scale and the deliciously wicked color. The empathy that motivated him to choose gold idols seems genuine, but he’s piled them up like so much booty in a shop window at Christmastime that they seem cheapened. But then, that may be entirely the point: He critiques the colonialism of museums while relishing the visual experience they provide.
In the room adjacent to the “Gold” series, there’s a wonderfully quirky painting called “Saints.” The flagship work of a series by the same name, it’s about 7 feet square and lustily executed in various hues of blue mixed with whites and blacks. “Saints” depicts a dream-space emanating creamy light and crammed with disembodied heads of various gods, saints, and heroes, all jostling one another for our attention. It’s both a playful and a nightmarish image, depending on how you react to such constellations of world mythology, and its daubs of brushwork and unified surface texture suggest the direction Slonem would eventually take in the 1990s. Similarly, its many layers of eclectic clutter mirror the artist’s taste in ideas.
According to a gallery label, Slonem spent some time in India tending rare and exotic birds at an ashram. He bought his first tropical bird in 1989 in Hawaii and now reportedly has close to 100 of them encaged in his New York loft. Thus the childhood cape story strongly suggests it was destiny that eventually led to his signature “Birds” series, which depicts the artist’s aviary and many of its occupants. On most, like “Haitian Rope” or “The Good Doctor,” the network of lines engraved into the thick oil recreates the mesh grid of the wire cage and provides a sensuous texture. Others merely have hatched lines that double as perches.
The “Birds” as a whole are punch-drunk with color, and they convey a freewheeling image of the artist thrashing around in the muck of oil paint. Some have thrown-on chunks of modeling paste or swards of oil applied as if with a trowel, evoking patterned (and massive) mounds of bird poop. And yes, in the best examples there are more than a few exotic birds. One obvious metaphor recurring here is the idea that birds symbolize the soul and cages are the body, but these paintings are also “cages” for Slonem’s ideas.
One work even seems to portray the artist as one of his glamorous birds, languishing as a prisoner in a cagealbeit one of his own design. Coyly entitled “TripTic, The Witness,” it’s an actual triptych about 7 feet by 25 feet, and it’s probably the finest work in the exhibition. “TripTic” is a subtle abstract sea of olive greens, cobalt blues, and golds, its shimmering surface crisscrossed by the mesh lines. In the center panel, perched in the middle of the disarray of heavy paint, is a schematic face peering at the viewer from behind the incised “enclosure.”
Artist as bird? The entertaining stories Slonem told during the opening reception as he strode from room to room certainly filled the air like exquisite plumage swaying behind him. And he certainly scavenges images and exotica the same way that a crow collects all manner of stuffhis sources range from Albrecht Dürer’s 15th-century woodcut for the Revelations of Saint John to Hollywood publicity stills, and he speaks readily about channeling, voodoo, and visions.
But the real attraction of the show is less in the subject matter than in the richly painted surfaces and colors. Broad gestures in paint, made with the artist’s entire arm, fill canvases the size of theater backdrops. Elsewhere, the paint is fearlessly slopped on with feathery strokes or caked on as if Slonem were buttering bread or making low-relief sculpture. His palette ranges from the most subtle of pastel hues to the most screeching of chromas, from High-Church Episcopal to late-night drag show. Slonem’s work reminds me of both the subtleties of impressionism and the excesses of expressionism. Do we really look at such styles to see representation, or are we seeking a heightened experience of color, light, and surface? In Slonem’s Rudolph Valentino series, his latest, the subject is simply incidental to the delectable paint, radioactive palette, and teasings of the brush. This series could just as easily be about Lois Lane and Clark Kent, and it would be no less interesting to the eye, although it’s nowhere near as visually satisfying as his “Birds.”
You must admire Slonem’s willingness to experiment. As each series demonstrates, he’s reinvented himself as an artist several times over, getting better and stronger with each incarnation. It isn’t really necessary to comprehend the esoteric mysticism and intrigue he claims as his subjects. In some ways they’re just bit players compared to the real stars here: luscious surfaces. Slonem has lived a colorful life, but he hasn’t really painted it yet, at least not much of it. Exotic eccentricities, Hindu metaphysics, and channeling Valentino make for good copycould we hope for a New Yorker short story?but they’re just one snazzy costume in a gallery already filled with a Mardi Gras riot of hues.
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