New York

Hunt Slonem

Hunt Slonem’s earlier works described a paradise in which the social and the spiritual converge with the panoply of the natural world. In these large, brightly colored paintings of the last few years, the vitality of Slonem’s flat but juicy brushwork serves the double purpose of weaving an apocalyptic, albeit charming, jungle around emblazoned icons of the endangered and deceased—groups of exotic animals, usually surrounding a healer or saint. His faux-naive manner appears to stem from a romantic attitude about painting that celebrates the resurrection of man and beast in terms of this world rather than the next.

Although Slonem keeps a menagerie of exotic birds in his New York loft and has traveled widely in the latitudes from which he has derived the dramatic backgrounds for his allegorical tableaux (Latin America and India), his large-scale narrative works appear to be mnemonic. His recent show consisted of 30 mostly black-and-white paintings that convey his painterly response to the direct observation of nature, and in which the muted palette reveals his hand more clearly. Although several of the paintings recall his earlier works, both in size and presentation of his jungle theme (such as Ocelots and Habitat, both 1987), most of the new paintings are significantly smaller and simpler. The images in these works are reduced to a few or even single shapes that barely coalesce into forms beneath a loosely overlaid grid. Slonem appears to have taken his symbols out of the rain forest and rendered them dimly in the literal cages of his studio.

The existential mood of these paintings, which are his most abstract works to date, is heightened by a surreal effect produced by the “antique” decorative picture frames in which the canvases are displayed. The stark simplification of the grids in the paintings contrasts with the frames. The dull gold frame surrounding Narchiso, 1987, charges the range of grays with a mirrorlike luminosity, enhancing the meaning of an elegant but ambiguous image that appears to be sequestered behind a window grate’s thin iron bars. In this way, the grids uncannily achieve a more subtle and greater range of painterly nuance than do the intertwining jungle motifs of the larger works.

In the past, Slonem’s flamboyant paintings have conveyed a hopeful optimism by expressing a transcendent sense of identification with the natural world. A dignified, almost serene calm prevails in these smaller works that may be associated with the beatific mood of the larger paintings and their sense of evoking a peaceable kingdom. The creatures behind the imprisoning grids seem unaware of their predicament—or, at least, remain unruffled by it. In Slonem’s vision of a post-apocalyptic Eden, the paintings’ tranquil inhabitants are absorbed by their patterned environment, enmeshed in the natural world in which he places all of us.

Ray Kass