ALEXIS HUNTER

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Art Historian and Curator Elizabeth Eastmond Interviews Alexis Hunter 1993

Elizabeth Eastmond: Looking at the photographic narrative sequences now, a good ten years on, their politics are less controversial of course, but their formal strengths and their humour strike me more forcibly. To Lucy Lippard 'fetishism and a hint of S and M (seduction and mystification) lurk just beneath the surface.' She doesn't specify 'punk' but was punk culture significant for some of these works?

Alexis Hunter: I had an immediate sympathy with the punk movement - it was a very grass-roots thing to begin with, a burst of energy from the young people dispossessed and unwanted from the recession, and bands formed out of art school students who felt the fine arts couldn't do enough to change society. There was a mixture of anarchy and vulnerability - the reversal of accepted notions of beauty - that someone with no job, no future, could be gloriously ugly. 'Fashion' was self-deprecatory: wearing of black plastic municipal rubbish bags, safety pins, torn clothing,razor blades. The punk movement and artists came together in the studios at Shad Thames in the London dockyards. Annie Bean's 1973 performance-band The Moodies had a cult following with artists, especially feminists. She would sing in a black rubber diving suit, the other women in the band in pink silk French knickers and vests. The lyrics of punk songs then were very political. By 1976, Annie was holding Warehouse parties at Shad thames where I heard Siouxsie and the Banshees.

'Approach to Fear: Pain Destruction of Cause (1977) used a municipal rubbish bag as a background and in 'To a Silent Woman' (1981) the heroine wears black nail varnish and uses a razor blade to cut her nails. 'London' (1981) is about that generation - the frustration of being sentenced to the dole for a decade, and the joy of being able to express that, even if it is futile and dangerous, counterproductive. The bright hair styles like cockatoos, parrots and strange monkeys influenced the 'Passionate Instincts' series too. The mutations of dress - layers of laddered tights with boots under a sequinned chiffon party dress, topped with a mane of purple and green, blackened eyes, whitened face... all bound together with heavy chains, with height being the only indication of gender. This destruction of social clues by mixing them up was Post-modernist. I wanted to capture that strange, defiant animal beauty that came out of such despair despite the dissolution of a culture based on hope.

E.E. : What other sorts of factors affect the generation of ideas in your work?

A.H.: I read Freud, H.G. Wells, Samuel Pepys as a child - my parents had a good library. The avant-garde films I was taken to by my Father -Fellini, Bergman, Last Year at Marienbad, Eisenstein...from the 'seventies, Conceptual Art, Feminist Theory, Socialist Theory, Punk...urban life, talking to people, remembered conversations, physiology, sociology, the book Serial Time by H.E.Dunn...Graves' 'The White Goddess', the surrealist painter Kurt Selgmann's 'The History of Magic'. Angela Carter's 'The Sadeian Woman', 'naive' paintings, Mexican masks, Borges's 'The Book of Imaginary Beings', 'The Bicameral Brain' ... I started talking over ideas with Dr R. A. Johnson about states of emotion, why they exist...and Lewis Hydes's book 'The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property' - a gift from the American artist May Stevens. Like The Gift, many books important for my work have been given to me. I like the notion of the gift being an important part of the act of creation - the feeling that I am just passing something on by painting something someone has given me, then exhibiting it. Then sometimes I'm interested in things because they look like what I'm doing rather than the other way around.

E.E.: Symbolism is pretty important in much of your work, especially the motifs of fire and blood...and snakes with phallic tails...

A.H.: To me, fire means change, destruction of the past, cleansing, nature, danger, revenge. Blood means woman, life, reality, the pull of nature. -In the 1982 work snakes represented patriarchy, then in 1983 they moved into the artist's muse (masculine 'other'). Tails represent Power, fear of power...and instinct.

E.E.: A devil has featured in a number of your works: as the muse in the series 'An Artist Looking for Her Muse' and in the monoprints in 'An Artist Dancing with Her Muse'. A recent painting has the wonderful title 'The Devil Reading a Post-Structuralist Version of the Bible'. Who is the devil? Is it you?

A.H.: The Devil in the 'Artists Muse' series represented the animus, bestiality, humour as in naughtiness. 'The Devil Reading a Post-Structuralist Version of the Bible' was painted after a discussion on Postmodernism with the Art Historian Briar Woods. The devil started of as a transvestite sitting on a wall surrounded by others, all reading the Bible and laughing. Then he became female, alone and floating in the sky. Now she/he is much more luxuriant and sexually ambigious...and back in Hell, I think. There was a debate on the ordination of women in the Anglican Church going on at this time. Other related studies are 'A Devil Considering the Ordination of Women', both works from 1988.

E.E.: How important is the foregrounding of female sexuality in your work?

A.H.: It's tied up with self-expression. The fear of expressing their sexuality/womanliness has made women artists weaker than they could have been (with the exception of Artemesia Gentileschi). I'm talking more of libido, sensuality, than obvious sexuality.

E.E.: You have painted/photographed some interesting representations of men: an early role-reversal reclining male nude while you were still at Elam, the 'Object Panel' paintings of the mid-seventies, some serial photographic pieces and a small number of 'eighties paintings. Their look and function seem to have changed quite a bit...

A.H.:'The Object Series' ...Well, first my motives. In 1972 I went to lecture on Physiognomy and culture at the Royal Academy in which a lecturer, an academician, was exceedingly racist in his view of other cultures and had a revulsion for tattooing. As a New Zealander brought up to respect the spiritual importance of Maori tattooing I was surprised at this...horrified, considering also how many tattooed Englishmen I'd seen walking around the streets of London. I'd already joined the Artists' Union by then and wanted to find a of images important to working class culture and thought it might be found in the images of European tattooing.
I became interested in why European men get tattooed when they are isolated from women - at sea, in prison - and why it is even less acceptable for a woman to be tattooed. I exhibited photographs of tattooed men in the street with those of tattooed women at a nude beauty contest in New York, alongside Mary Kelly's 'Post-Partum Document' (in Newcastle, England) in 1974. It created much controversy and the Director, Conrad Atkinson was asked to resign for putting the exhibition on at all. A woman complained that my photos were sexist because they were close-ups of the body. I thought if these photographs could be thought of as sexist, could you do sexist paintings of men?

I painted a 25 foot-long panel of paintings of male sexual fetishism-tattoos, heavy jewellery, leather...I should have read John Berger's 'Ways of Seeing' and found out about the 'male gaze' and that objectification is a very small part of a sexist painting (power is very difficult to remove when people are presumed to have it). In those days, in the vanguard of the understanding of patriarchal hegemony, we sometimes went up paths that turned into mazes: it was all very experimental. We mostly relied on film theory then-John Berger seemed to be the only person deconstructing the sacred cow of art history in England. the Feminist Art History Group was formed then, an off-shoot of the Women's Workshop of the Artist's Union.

In 1977 I used male hands in 'Approaches to Fear XI-Effeminacy: Production Action', which was about men's fear of being discovered in a role designated as feminine, like cleaning, and turning it into "Engineering Maintenance" which carried the right masculine kudos. I met Dr. R.A.Johnson in 1981 and we have had some discussions on psychology and emotion which have been influential. In 1985 his latest theory was of the memory of the fear of infanticide by the Mother residing in the adult male, causing blocks and repressed anger...and I held it at the back of my mind to do some work concerning this revolutionary concept as I do think the patriachy is in some way influenced by the unsuccessful child/parent relationship.



Published in Art New Zealand 1990©Elizabeth Eastmond