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Donald Kuspit
Hunt Slonem: An Art Rich and Strange

Hunt Slonem
Birdman of Manhattan
by Ilka Scobie

Donald Kuspit, Hunt Slonem: An Art Rich and Strange, 166 pp., Abrams, 2002, $65 hardcover

Upon opening the luxurious new picture book dedicated to the wild world of Hunt Slonem's art, a reader is immediately hypnotized by a rainbow grid of male portraits -- probably, self-portraits -- on the end papers. This delirious intensity exemplifies the entire volume, which creates an irresistible image of Slonem's personal urban paradise, a living aviary filled with colorful paintings of birds and all manner of other animals.

In his art, Slonem manages to balance sheer decorative exuberance with a subtle and profound spirituality. As Donald Kuspit points out in "Birds of Paradise and Other Higher Beings," the incisive essay accompanying some 215 color illustrations, "birds are spiritual beings . . . emblems of escape from the material cage of the immaterial sky that is the stepping-stone to the immeasurable cosmos."

In both of his New York studios, Slonem keeps an aviary, and it is his images of toucans, parrots, lorys and macaws (whom the artist refers to as "working animals") for which he is best known. A rare treat is the inclusion of Slonem's portraits of saints and mystics, a subsidiary theme of his work that is too seldom seen.

Slonem's studios are themselves vast artworks, filled with exquisite Neo-Gothic furniture arranged in counterpoint with exotic orchids, palm trees and a kaleidoscopic collection of Blenko glass. Six colored theme rooms include a canary yellow office and a chartreuse meditation room. Loft walls are filled with his own canvases, paintings of birds, ocelots and butterflies, plus expressionist portraits of human friends. Intricately carved and gilded frames compliment the sumptuous paintings. A mounted lepidopteran collection occupies one crimson room. Like Frederic Church's Moorish estate on the Hudson, Olana, the living and work space reflects the artist's expansive, idiosyncratic vision.

In the book, full-bleed images capture the resonant under and over colors, abstract brush strokes and the textural incised grid of bird cages. Further enhancements include detailed cropping of paintings and quirky charming typographical paginations.

Interspersed with the richly toned plates are photos of the artist and his environment. An illustrated biography reveals Slonem's exotic upbringing, with a childhood interlude in Hawaii and adolescence in Central America. An extensive bibliography is included.

An Art Rich and Strange is an inspiring presentation of an artist's seductive visual sojourn, one that we can all now share.

ILKA SKOBIE is a native New Yorker who writes poetry and art criticism.

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