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by Ilka Scobie
|Hunt Slonem, Feb. 23-Mar. 25, 2000, at Marlborough, 40 W. 57th Street, New York, N.Y. 10019.
I first saw Hunt Slonem's paintings in a small gallery on St. Bart's a decade ago. The exuberant tropical bird imagery certainly mirrored the Caribbean geography. It was surprising to learn the artist lived and worked in downtown New York.
Slonem's current exhibition at Marlborough epitomizes his prolific and passionate approach. His familiar and widely exhibited repertoire of exotic birds, animals and flora pulse with vibrant color and immediacy. The art critic Vincent Katz has called Slonem "a romantic with a bit of Abstract Expressionist brush." If Slonem's birds lack Audubon's accuracy, his canvases resound with the cacophony of an exotic aviary.
The richly hued painting Lories is emblematic of Slonem's style, highlighting as it does the crosshatching that has been his tradmark for the last several years. Working with the immediacy of wet on wet paint, he uses a carved wooden stick to incise the thickly painted surfaces, replicating the actual lattice of a birdcage.
Slonem keeps almost a hundred birds in his loft and says that the lories, a breed originally from Indonesia and Australia, are hard to keep. "They're messy and noisy, but also one of the most brilliantly colored and beautiful of parrots. They're so exciting -- an endless source of inspiration."
Finches, featuring pastel-hued images of individual birds, creates a meditative pattern. The eye shifts from individual birds to the entire flock and back again. Slonem says, "I have come to explore the image of birds in space as a metaphor for the disappearance of natural habitat."
A lepidopterist as well as a bird-lover, Slonem, as a high school exchange student in Nicaragua, cut classes to trek after butterflies in the rain forest. In Streams I and Streams II, random collections of butterflies shimmer on cerulean fields. The diaphanous palette is reminiscent of 17th-century Dutch bouquet paintings like those of Jan Van Huysum.
Curled in a sensuous tangle, Ocelots' psychedelic sapphire stare confronts and mesmerizes. Heavy pawed feline grace counterpoints the abstract background. Why ocelots? The artist replies, "Because I saw them when I was 16 in Nicaragua and I was given an ocelot skin. I had a cat that was half Asian Leopard that looked like an ocelot."
"I always thought of myself as kind of Victorian," Slonem says. Like Frederic Church, Martin Johnson Heade and other 19th-century American artists, his visual vocabulary is both dramatic and exotic. Slonem's too rarely shown portraits of saints, movie stars and beautiful young men represent a contemporary angle on Romanticism.
"I'm interested in 19th-century Gothic Revival manner," the artist continues, "in which extravagant design is a bridge between Romanticism and Modernism." Dozens of ornate wooden neo-Gothic chairs line his Chelsea hallway. An eclectic collector, Slonem is a flea market aficionado. Is he influenced by his extensive Blenko glass collection, or are the sparkling objects merely a reflection of his own opulent palette?
Slonem depicts nature as urbane, multi-layered, brilliantly colored, magnified and simplified through a New York lens. Sheer joy pervades his energetic synthesis of abstraction and representation. Hunt Slonem is the consummate pantheistic painter of our times.
ILKA SCOBIE is a native New Yorker who writes poetry and art criticism.