Hunt Slonem’s artistic obsessions are a feast for the eyes.
There’s a blizzard blowing through New York City: there’s snow in the air and ice on the streets. And the city that never sleeps is — well, perhaps not shutting down, but certainly catching its breath.
Hunt Slonem, however, is someone who doesn’t believe in snow days. He’s wearing an old shirt and a pair of cut-off pants, both with paint stains. And he’s busy doing what he does best — poring over a canvas full of finely drawn butterflies, fine-tuning the detailed crosshatched lines of his next painting.
“I’m a painter,” Slonem says. “I paint every day. That’s the meat and potatoes of who I am and what I do.”
As it turns out, he’s pretty good at it. Since he started painting in the early 1970s, Slonem has enjoyed extraordinary success. His work has been showcased in museums around the world, including the Smithsonian American Art Museum, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the New York Academy of Art. He’s had over 200 solo exhibitions in dozens of countries around the world. He’s also received a number of prestigious awards and accolades, including three MacDowell Fellowships and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Slonem’s biography lists him as a “neo-expressionist.” The vast majority of his art features everyday, recognizable forms and objects, but they’re expressed in a highly personal, almost emotional style.
But it’s perhaps easier to understand him as an artist of passion. Unlike many artists, Slonem doesn’t “approach” or “consider” a subject. Rather, he tackles it and wrestles it to the ground, subduing it with brushstroke and crosshatch, until he comes to completely master it. He frequently devotes dozens of canvases to a single subject, and each of those canvases encompasses dozens of iterations of the subject.
“People are saying ‘repetition,’ like [it’s] almost a derogatory word,” Slonem says. “[But] everything in nature is repeated endlessly, and yet it’s all different. So repetition [takes] on almost a divine meaning for me. You know, like the more you repeat it, the more it becomes true. If I haven’t painted something 20 times, I don’t feel like I know the subject.”
The list of Slonem’s obsessions is long: butterflies, birds, rabbits, ocelots, tropical plants, tropical fruits, tropical trees, Abraham Lincoln, exotica of all kinds. But beyond the content of his art lies another obsession: colour.
To call Slonem’s work colourful would be to do it a grave disservice. More like saturated, drenched, soaked in pigment, many of his canvases are lavish and an intense homage to the entire rainbow, marked with bright hues, primarily from a tropical palatte.
“I like to push colour to its limits,” Slonem says. “I’m happy when it’s bright and colourful and pizzazz-y and interesting. Colour is sheer joy to me. So much of the world is grey — and it just doesn’t resonate for me.”
As Slonem explains, the source of this particular obsession can be traced back to his childhood. “We lived in Hawaii, and I was familiar with all those forms and shapes and gods and animal life. You know, I loved that — [it was] paradise-like.”
“I had teachers in the ancient days — I remember one in Hawaii who would hold up two colours and say: ‘You can never use these colours together—they make you sick!’ So I used them constantly,” he says, laughing heartily. “I just like breaking rules and seeing how far you can go.”
One of those rules is the boundary between “art” and other things. In addition to being a prolific painter, Slonem is busy with sculpture, décor, and design in all forms. Slonem’s artistic window displays have graced luxury department store Bergdorf Goodman in New York City. German car maker Audi commissioned him to create a custom-designed A5 coupe — he based the design on one of his oil paintings. Last year, he collaborated with fashion accessories company Echo Design Group for a limited edition scarf and handbag collection. Late last year, he published a new book, When Art Meets Design. In between these projects, he’s somehow found the time to turn his two plantations in Louisiana into massive, grandiose galleries of paintings, furniture, and other objets d’art, decorated in his eclectic, personal style.
It all adds up to an exceptionally busy life — one that Slonem revels in. Listen to Slonem for a while, and you get the sense that the artist lives his life in the same way he paints: on a large canvas. “I hope that I will be able to do larger and larger work. I feel that I’m at my best on an enormous scale.”
“Bigger, more, better. I’m so happy with what I’m doing — it’s not like I have all these unfulfilled dreams,” Slonem says, “but my goal is to do more public things that people can see permanently.”
“And my larger goal — not a goal, but a necessity — is to have an enormous building or house that I can fill up for the rest of my life.”
Until that happens, Slonem will continue painting, whatever the weather happens to be doing outside. “I’m trying to find my boundaries,” he laughs surrounded by some of his most colourful masterpieces.
Photography by Marco Ricca