Since 1977, the work of American artist Hunt Slonem has been celebrated at more than 350 exhibitions in galleries and museums worldwide, and more than 250 museums—from the Met to the Whitney to the Guggenheim—have added it to their permanent collections. But Slonem has never had a solo exhibition in Denver—until now.
On September 10, LoDo gallery K Contemporary will debut Curiouser and Curiouser, a show featuring more than 200 of the artist’s creations, from his early work to his iconic oil paintings of bunnies and butterflies to new mediums including neon, glass, and bronze sculptures.
“Imagine swarms of art,” says gallery owner Doug Kacena, who is co-curating the lavish exhibition with Denver-based artist Jonathan Saiz. “It’s going to be a temple to abundance.”
Together, the duo will transform both floors of the 5,000-square-foot gallery, using antique and vintage furnishings and rugs from Eron Johnson Antiques and Shaver-Ramsey, as well as lighting, paint, and mirrors to capture Slonem’s maximalist aesthetic in fantastical, colorful realms. “Hunt is magic,” Kacena says. “The only way I can describe him is like if Bacchus had a baby with a séance. That would be Hunt.”
Here, the duo share how they’ll tell his story by immersing viewers in his art—and his irresistible world of abundance.
5280 Home: For many people, the name Hunt Slonem evokes images of his signature bunny and butterfly paintings. But, as you’ve discovered, there’s much more to this artist.
Doug Kacena: Initially, I had that understanding of his work, too. But then I visited Hunt in his studio, and that’s when it completely shifted for me. I started to understand who this person is and what the work is.
Hunt was birthed out of the pop art era. He knew Warhol and was part of the Studio 54 scene in New York. He’s also passionate about historic preservation, and has bought and restored numerous properties throughout the country—most recently, the Searles Castle in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. And in these homes, he has historic French and Colonial furniture with Warhols and Keith Haring artworks mixed in.
Hunt’s studio is 35,000 square feet; it’s the entire sixth floor of a building in Brooklyn. You walk in and the whole front of the space is filled with trees and plants, and you start to hear these birds squawking. It’s like an arboretum. In one spot, there’s a 15-foot-long table that is stacked three or four deep with beaver top hats. You turn the corner, and there’s a room filled with harps that don’t have strings. There are tables everywhere that are piled with collections—one displays a pyramid stack of red fez hats, another is covered with art glass, and others are filled with hundreds of framed photographs of him with presidents and princes and celebrities. He told me he keeps these photos around because it often feels like he’s living in a movie, and he needs to remind himself that these experiences actually happened.
The exhibition’s name, Curiouser and Curiouser, suggests that it will capture some of this fanciful world.
DK: The name is a reference to “Alice in Wonderland,” and I have envisioned creating this kind of a spectacle from the very beginning of working with Hunt. The last thing I ever wanted to do was just put a couple of rabbit paintings on the wall. I want people to get an idea of what his studio is, what his aesthetic is, and of this world that he’s created for himself with these homes and furniture pieces and things he collects, and is so passionate about. Because when you see [his art] in that context, that’s when you’re like, “Oh, I get it.”
I am so over-the-moon excited for this [exhibition] because there’ll be little moments that are reminiscent of Hunt’s studio or Hunt’s homes. But then I’m co-curating it with Jonathan Saiz—and just imagine what Jonathan, with a pretty hefty budget, is gonna do to transform this gallery.
Can you give us a hint?
Jonathan Saiz: Hunt’s work does magical things when it is part of a lifestyle context. It can be a delight for the senses when it’s exhibited in the context of a beautiful, dynamic space that’s filled with rich colors and historical references. What I’m trying to do at the gallery with Doug is create these luscious feasts of color and texture and pattern.
5,000 square feet of them!
JS: The exhibition has multiple rooms, starting with this pink pavilion [the gallery’s entry-level front room] that is very sensual and decadent and bright.
DK: Think 1980s glam French chocolate shop, with a huge pink painting glittering with diamond dust, and a neon bunny, too.
JS: Then the main gallery space is kind of a deconstructed hall of mirrors, which reflects Slonem’s paintings and highlights his new body of work, which incorporates light, to create a more immersive experience. The combination of glittering, antique crystal chandeliers with modern light boxes and neon is sort of a conversation through history.
Another part of the exhibition—designed to suggest that a séance is about to take place—sounds quite different.
JS: It’s a black-velvet-lined tent that incorporates some vintage furniture and lighting; it’s very dark and Victorian and mysterious. For Hunt, there is a spiritual, energetic undercurrent to his work, so we’re trying to create an environment where that can come forward.
What will we find on the second floor?
JS: Upstairs, we’re building a sort of English greenhouse. Hunt’s studio incorporates plants and live parrots, and we wanted to recreate that lush environment. There’s a journey through styles and times and atmospheres that we’re trying to present his work in.
Tell us about the early works you’ll display.
DK: At one time, Hunt only did figurative paintings; we’ll have several recent figurative works, including portraits of Queen Elizabeth and Abraham Lincoln. We also have pieces from the 1980s—again, quite different from Hunt’s current linear forms. One of them, called “Sleepwalk,” depicts two bears surrounded by an abundance of birds and bunnies.
And at the other end of the spectrum are new works and mediums?
DK: Hunt has recently been incorporating sculpture into his vernacular, and Curiouser and Curiouser will include his signature bunnies in neon, blown-glass, and gold-plated bronze, including large-scale pieces that will eventually be displayed in botanic gardens and other outdoor environments across the country.
What should viewers unfamiliar with Slonem’s work look for at this show?
JS: The work doesn’t require the viewer to be a Hunt Slonem scholar. That’s the interesting thing about it. It requires someone to have a sense of humor and a sense of joyful curiosity.
DK: Hunt’s work really is about bringing joy. It’s enchanting, it’s whimsical, it just makes you happy. And there’s a place for that in art. A lot of the work I do out of the gallery has underpinnings of social justice. Hunt’s work references that subtly, but it’s more about having some connection to joy.
Which we could all use right about now.
DK: I’m going over the top with this show because we all need a Jonathan Saiz candy factory right now. I want to create something that’s so loud and bright and shiny and over the top that when people come in, maybe it’ll drown out their phone for a second. It’s about creating so big of a spectacle that viewers can be present.
JS: I want people to have a nice counterbalance to the austerity of the pandemic. For me, that incredible quality and the prolific nature of Hunt’s work reminds me of the vast human potential. His work unlocks, for me, those feelings of abundance that we’re all looking for. I think it’s important for us to be reminded that there is natural abundance, that there is creative exuberance. I hope viewers get delighted by their senses and are reminded that it’s OK to appreciate beauty.
Curiouser and Curiouser runs from September 10 through November 6, 2021. The opening event will take place on Friday, September 10, from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at K Contemporary, located at 1412 Wazee Street in Denver.