by Jack Mottram, a freelance writer based in Glasgow · About · Contact · Feed

Kenny Hunter At Tramway

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Kenny Hunter is probably Glasgow’s best known sculptor. Since it was unveiled in 2001, thousands have paused before his Citizen Fire­fight­er­, and thousands more pass Girl With a Rucksack in the Gorbals. Hunter is, though, as much a gallery artist as he is a maker of public works, and A Shout In The Street offers a chance to see how the two strands of his practice com­ple­ment each other, as well as offering hints that the artist is striking out in new dir­ec­tions.

The first of these hints line the walls of Tramway 5, in the form of a series prints. In the same way that Hunter’s sculp­tur­al work is, more often than not, about sculpture, his series of prints show a keen awareness of the medium. Un­com­fort­able with the tendency of artists to make printed works that shadow their main practice, Hunter has embraced the two-di­men­sion­al sim­pli­city of the screen print, re­strict­ing himself to stark white texts set on a coloured back­ground. The results, which have the look of nightclub posters and album adverts that coat city walls, are pasted directly on to the gallery wall, and, in the spirit of sub­ver­t­ing the mo­nu­ment­al nature of public art works that informs his sculpture, Hunter has been busy, sneaking about fly-posting his prints in out-of-the-way spots around Glasgow.

Quite what passers-by will make of Hunter’s texts is open to question. He has borrowed lines from the likes of Rousseau, Baudelaire and Marx, eliding and adding to phrases to create rather cryptic slogans. One reads “Ever­last­ing Agitation”, a term lifted from The Communist Manifesto. Another bears the phrase “Things fall apart all over again”, a line adapted from Yeats’ poem The Second Coming, an apo­c­a­lypt­ic work dense with religious imagery that pits the loss of innocence sired by the first world war against un­fet­ter­ed tech­no­lo­gic­al progress. Hunter added that ‘all over again’, wryly com­ment­ing on the constant doom-mongering of prophets, high­light­ing humanity’s constant brink­s­man­ship - “There’s always something,” he says, “whether it’s the Cold War, or the threat of terrorism” - and, too, finding something positive in a gloomy subject by setting his text on a green ground, a hint that de­struc­tion is in­ev­it­ably followed by renewal.

This is dense stuff, and the sculp­tures on show here, like the prints, hide a complex set of concerns beneath their simple, smooth surfaces. Hunter’s theme is those strange places found at the edges of every city that serve no real purpose. It was on the daily bike commute to his An­n­ies­land studio, a route which takes him along the towpath of the Forth & Clyde canal, that Hunter found in­spir­a­tion. “These places are free-er than parks,” he explains, “You have couples going for a stroll, people fishing, gangs meeting up at night to drink cider.” What caught his eye, though, was not the humans using the part-urban, part-rural route, but the animals.

In one sculpture a pigeon perches on an oil drum set into a car tyre. Elsewhere, a lazy, non­chal­ant fox sits atop an as­ym­met­ric ar­range­ment of shelving units, a cat stands guard over a block made of a fridge and a microwave. More pigeons roost on a neat pile of tele­vi­sions, and another is about to take flight, setting off from an abandoned table propped up by a telly.

There’s something comic about these ar­range­ments. The heaps of junk clearly echo the forms of tra­di­tion­al plinths, and Hunter might well be the first artist to utilise what he calls “the ar­chi­tec­ton­ic systems of mo­nu­ment­al sculpture” to me­mor­i­al­ise the pigeon, but the humour of seeing scrappy city fauna given a treatment usually reserved for the great and good makes a serious point. Hunter seems to be asking his audience to consider the ownership of the in-between spaces that have inspired him: we humans might have created them, but they belong, at least in part, to the animals that have colonised them, making good use of our abandoned consumer elec­tron­ics. Tellingly, the most human work here is a precise cast of a burst bin bag, spilling fag packets and coffee cups onto the gallery floor. These ideas look likely to inform Hunter’s practice for some time to come. Intrigued by the gangs of lads who made the headlines last year for hunting down the newly-urbanised roe deer, Hunter has plans to work on deer sculpture ad­dress­ing, no doubt with his usual ambiguity, questions that surround the story of animals adapting to a new en­vir­on­ment, and humans adapting to hunt them with dogs, mirroring the practices of rural humans of a different class.

In another departure from his usual practice, Hunter adds a layer to his new works by in­cor­por­at­ing found objects - the fridge, for example, is real, but the microwave beside it is a cast - offering a sort of internal critique of his own work. “Putting an abject beside a copy, a cast works as an irritant, or a trap,” he says, “It asks questions about the value of the art, and the au­thor­ship - is it in the casting of an object, or in the finding of an object?”

Such the­or­et­ic­al questions apply more directly still to a set of sculp­tures in which Hunter turns away from his usual fig­ur­at­ive work, looking instead to the modular Min­im­al­ism of Carl Andre or Donald Judd’s regular, repeated forms. Needless to say, Hunter subverts the work of his pre­de­ces­sors with a bit of a wink, un­der­min­ing this cool aesthetic by stacking up casts of pizza boxes to suggest Modernist tower blocks or neatly arranging casts of cardboard boxes on slatted wooden palettes. It remains to be seen whether these more obviously ex­per­i­ment­al works will inspire future public sculp­tures, but Hunter clearly relishes the op­por­tun­ity to cut loose in a gallery as much as he responds to the stric­tures of mounting work on the city streets. “If I had to rely on one or the other,” he jokes, “I’d become very bitter.”

Thank­fully, he is just the opposite, and this show shows it - there’s something generous about the work on show here, towards the animal subjects and their over­looked en­vir­on­ment, and towards the viewer too, thanks to Hunter’s ap­par­ently ef­fort­less ability to make ac­cess­ible works shot through with complex, ambiguous ideas about the role of art in society, and ex­pli­citly political, but never didactic, thought-provoking where a lesser artist might stoop to pro­pa­ganda.

A Shout In The Street is at Tramway from July 13 until August 24.

This review was first published in The Herald on Friday 11th July , 2008.