Haunted by South Louisiana, the widely collected painter opens his most ambitious exhibition ever at UAM.
When painter Hunt Slonem’s one-man exhibition opens Saturday, May 15 at the Paul & Lulu Hilliard University Art Museum, it will be without precedent, both for the museum and the artist. “It’s the largest show on that scale I’ve ever done,” Slonem admits. It will also be the first time Slonem’s work has hung in a Lafayette museum.
“We’ve been looking forward to this opportunity to sort of highlight our community through the eyes of this artist for a couple of years,” says UAM Director Mark Tullos.
Slonem has been profiled in publications ranging from Vanity Fair, Architectural Digest and ArtNews to The Jeanerette Enterprise and Hudson Valley Magazine. His colorful style is matched only by his personal style — bright and bold, defiant, and even dismissive of the avant garde. Yet his work, described variously as abstract expressionism and pop art, resides in major collections across North America and Europe including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of Contemporary Art and the Smithsonian Institution. When the New York-based artist spoke to The Independent by telephone last week he was in Boston to open an exhibition; he had just returned from Bulgaria for another exhibition of his work.
Hunt Slonem is a jetset celebrity artist, but he seeks regular respite at a pair of plantation homes he owns in South Louisiana. And it is the flora and fauna of this area, and the bayous that bisect it and the ghostly mansions that haunt it, that serve as the inspiration for “Hunt Slonem on the Bayou.” Works for the UAM show — 18 massive 9’x9’ oil on canvas paintings filling 5,500 square feet of exhibit space — were created exclusively for the museum; they have not been exhibited before. The 48-page brochure for the exhibition features the paintings in the exhibition interspersed with excerpts from the works of Louisiana Poet Laureate Darrell Bourque and New Iberia novelist James Lee Burke.
It was the UAM staff that approached Slonem a couple of years ago about creating the exhibit, says curator Lee Gray, who helped guide the process. “I thought that his connection to Louisiana was really valuable, and I thought that if he could tie what he was doing to that, I thought that would be really special.”
When the paintings arrived from Slonem’s New York studio, Gray lined them up to begin thinking about groupings for the museum’s walls and quickly found a pattern: “To me it looks like the seasons. He has two very abstract pieces; they end up being on either end. But when I look at them, I see seasons. I’m not sure that he was thinking along those lines — I think he just painted as things came to him. He’s so prolific, I think he just kind of gets in the zone and does his thing. But the way I’ve actually organized it is to start with winter and move through the seasons of the year.”
Slonem’s paintings, well known for the bird, rabbit and monkey motifs that are often repeated ad infinitum, fetch as much as $100,000, a handsome sum for a living artist, and he enjoys the reputation as a bon vivant in the privileged social circles of New York City where he lives most of the year. Hunt Slonum is to Gotham what George Rodrigue is to the Gulf Coast — a colorful, collectable brand and a must-have addition to patrician parlors.
So it is understandable that the 58-year-old Slonem has the financial wherewithal to own not only sprawling, exclusive real estate in Manhattan, but to also collect his mail at two historic Louisiana plantation homes — Albania, on Bayou Teche in St. Mary Parish south of Jeanerette, and Lakeside in Point Coupee Parish. He became transfixed by Louisiana’s antebellum character as a student in the early 1970s at Tulane University where he earned a bachelor of arts degree. Slonem says he now spends about 10 days per month between the two homes, entertaining guests and soaking in the moss-festooned live oaks.
“People say why do you have two [plantation homes],” he jokes, “and I say, ‘Because I can’t afford 100.”
Something of a Victorian spiritualist, Slonem famously told the news program CBS Sunday Morning that he channels spirits when he works. Imagine an artist like this padding around a 180-year-old plantation home. “O, yeah,” he sighs matter-of-factly, “I have a lot of mystic friends who have visited, and I pretty much know a lot of what goes on there in the other dimensions. ...There’s a lot of dark energies that we’re trying to move to the light. We have a little boy ghost who lives at Lakeside who likes to move people’s shoes and call their names in the night.”
“Hunt Slonem on the Bayou” opens to the public on Saturday, May 15 and will remain at the Paul & Lulu Hilliard University Art Museum until Dec. 4.
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