Tom Hunter: Beauty in Dark Moments - Yancy Richardson Gallery, NYC

livinginhell.jpgTom Hunter’s show, “Living in Hell and Other Stories, is brilliant: brilliant colors, brilliant concepts, brilliant craft. Seven huge (48 x 60 inch) Cibachrome prints fill the gallery walls. The subject is crime. What Hunter does is restage violent crimes or criminal environments reported in his local paper, the Hackney Gazette—often at the moment of discovery, combining theatrical tableaux with stunning composition. This British artist-photographer is known for a vision that captures contemporary social moments using historical painting references.

The large, glowing photos produce excitement in both their titillating subjects and their high-gloss immediacy. The indoor point of view tends to be up close. The first photo in the show is titled “Rat in Bed.” What we see is a sleeping woman with long dark hair, lying naked on her stomach, face turned to the side, her fetching derriere revealed by the pulled-down bedding. And on the bed, standing up on his hind legs, is a rat. The room is lit by bright yellow light from little lanterns strung across the bed frame. Against the wall next to her bed, her shoes are lined up: little furry slippers, boots, heels. Her posture suggests exhaustion as well as comfort. There is no suspicion on her part of a rat on the bed. That Hunter calls the show “Living in Hell and Other Stories” gives the viewer a clue to all these works: each suggests a narrative crying out to be told.

It might begin: “Ming Yee retired that night after her late hours as a coat check girl at the Raskolnikof nightclub just east of Covent Garden. She hadn’t minded when big Max touched her creamy arm a little too long. After all, he had money, and Ming Yee had dreams…” (Or who knows what story this photo evokes? It is Hunter’s careful staging and lighting that presents that one moment in a series of moments such that a photo’s subject becomes a character in an implied narrative.)

The second photo is titled “Lover Set on Fire in Bed.” A woman sits stony-faced in a chair by a bed, grasping in one hand a Ronson lighter fluid can and in the other a lighter. In the glowing bed lies a man under a sheet, sleeping, while flames under the sheet burn angry yellow. On the wall over the stiff woman’s head is a small picture of a saint slaying monsters, wings aloft, sword in hand. The avenging party in the chair has no such majesty. She is very still. Hunter achieves these absolutely frozen moments, as if one has just walked in and found this scene, rather like the very opening moments in a typical Law and Order episode when the couple walking in the park discovers the mutilated body just off the path. The woman usually screams.

All seven photos in the exhibit lend themselves to detailed analysis and viewer immersion. The pure, raw power in Hunter’s work makes it a show well worth seeing. My personal favorite, because of its stunning beauty, is “Up Before the Beak: Angry Swan Guards Bridge after Crash.” It’s an outdoor environment, presumably steps in a park leading to a bridge, with lush trees and exquisite early morning light. On the steps a swan attacks a woman, although all we see from our angle is her stockinged legs askew, white pumps discarded. We are compelled to recall earlier artistic depictions of this tale as well as Yeats’ poem “Leda and the Swan”: “A sudden blow” the great wings beating still/ Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed/ By his dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,/ He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.”

Three of the photos are set outdoors, four inside. The outdoor ones are more mysterious, and--in the case of two--lyrical. But even in the grittiest interior shot, the title photo, “Living in Hell,” which shows an aged person of indeterminate gender staring out at us with blank sad eyes, from the sofa in a room covered with cockroaches—suggesting levels of filth and despair only hinted at in the actual image—there is in the clarity and detail and force of the depiction something approaching beauty.

The staged theatrical photo is not a new concept; consider the pioneering work in this genre of American photographer Sandy Skoglund. What Tom Hunter brings to the form is a thrilling willingness to move cinematically into the world of contemporary violence and suffering, with all its strange beauty. - Victoria Sullivan

Yancy Richardson Gallery
535 West 22nd Street
New York, NY
February 24th - March 25th, 2006

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Ms. Sullivan is a poet and playwright who lives in Manhattan and has a little cabin outside of Woodstock, NY. When not brooding, or laughing, she is generally traveling, writing, or staring at the trees.

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