My writing is jagged and harsh, I want it to remain that way; I don’t want it smoothed out.
– Charles Bukowski
Neither the gesture nor the palette of Todd Hunter’s paintings are determinedly jagged or harsh and yet nor are they smooth. There is a vigour and angularity that is enabled by a highly energetic and robust act of drawing – a regime that sets in place a strong but discreet scaffolding for his subsequent material adventures – a framework for the nigh-on asperous energy that leavens his wonderful painting.
The punchy calligraphy of his gesture can turn fast or slow, the brushstroke can be loaded with pigment yet dissipate abruptly as the bristles discharge their material under his persuasive action. Within this range of marks Hunter has established a very particular vocabulary, one that is closer to Bukowski than Shakespeare to be sure. Though ironically both can be bawdy, it is the laid-bare nature of Bukowski that I sense Hunter really gets. His natural cadence and tone are more staccato, beat-poet than lyric sonnet.
Talking with Todd in his studio we spoke of how drawing remains a fundamental instrument for initiating composition and acknowledging narrative, for building form and for a quieter process of orientation. I look at the marks and gestures he makes, their length and their trace and it is clear that there is an accumulation of knowledge in these paintings that one can surely absorb only through drawing. This activity not only establishes the broader co-ordinates of what comes later but conversely it also functions to liberate the painting itself – letting it misbehave – be a little irresponsible.
Each drawing is made standing at a desk rather than sitting – a stance that grants him more latitude to move back and forth with the materials and prepares him for the act of painting. He is surrounded by ingredients – books, ashtrays, small pictures pinned to the wall – everything from a Cycladic fertility figure to Bridget Bardot, from Joe Strummer to a dump stack of Dylan books – Zimmerman and Thomas. Drawing is necessarily a more introspective, analogue proposition, – more mind and hand, less body and flourish. Looking at the drawings closely there is evidence of more “pressure” in the hand, a greater imposition of intimate touch. The charcoal can shave the surface, but it can also nick and score it.
Of course, I was delighted by his studio’s seamless collage of music and visuality. In the absence of often being able to speak clearly to the enigma of painting I tend to fall back on music for a ready analogy. I know Todd doesn’t leverage music as a contextual prop as I do (titles excepted) – it is simply that it was obvious the studio really gets going once there is a synaesthesia of sound and vision in the air. The more I looked however, the more it became clear that the paintings marched to their own beat. Ultimately the decisions about colour and form are driven by the intrinsic needs of the painting. In this sense once he is “in” the work fully, the incremental manner in which he constructs a painting – whilst evident – is balanced by a spontaneity and vigour that asserts the performative character of the painter. Gratefully Hunter doesn’t suffer any apprehension that the audience requires a roadmap lest they veer off into a cul-de-sac of misinterpretation. These paintings are conspicuously “painted”, their chemistry and biology, their very DNA tells you so. If you don’t get it….as Miles David suggested…I can’t help you…
However speaking with Todd Hunter in the studio he also suggests that he is open to the painting being understood or perhaps more accurately perceived ‘as it is’. For Hunter the obligation to make a work driven by some moral or didactic responsibility is as unlikely as it was for Bukowski. There is no de-coding to be done – just feel the colour, his spikey agility with the brushwork and be open to their complicated beauty. Over the course of the day one became aware that for such fervent paintings the colour could also be delicate. There is a sensuality to his colour that tempers the volatility – an unexpected tenderness in the way that colours share the space. These gentler pigments with all their blushes and “tinges” relate back to the drawings, if not directly, at the very least by insinuation.
In the studio I thought too of Philip Guston’s statement that “painting seems like some kind of peculiar miracle that I need to have again and again.” Todd works on supports of persistent sizes, like Liat Yossifor or Agnes Martin et al – something that seems to reinforce his and their desire to recreate the conditions and opportunity for wonder to occur. His best paintings seem to be ambushed by a promiscuous vivacity – one where the gesture and colour, composition and light are such that one doesn’t see them as separate attributes, they mingle and consort in Dionysian joy.
Between starting and finishing this writing, we made another trip to the Hunter studio. Hanging above the doorway that leads to the painting studio proper is Bob Dylan’s “Street Legal” album cover. It was Dylan that suggested that “All I can do is be me, whoever that is.” That is what I sense strongly in Todd Hunter’s painting… that he is working each and every day, both to be and re-make himself through painting, whoever that may be.
Fox Jensen and Fox Jensen McCrory are keen to know too, so we are thrilled to be working with Todd Hunter and presenting his paintings in the Sydney and Auckland galleries at dates to be announced soon.
– Andrew Jensen