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.