Billy Hunt On A Life Collecting
BILLY HUNT ON A LIFE COLLECTING
Interview with Billy Hunt by Daniel Maidman
Tell us a little bit about your collection. What do you focus on in art and artists? You've really designed your living space around your art collection. How did you get started as an art collector, and how did art-collecting come to play such a dominant role in your life?
My art collection today really began in 1999, which coincided with my divorce and the new opportunity to decorate my home exactly as I wished, and the financial means to accomplish what I wished. The subjects of all the paintings are women, and most of them are nudes. I suppose my divorce had an impact on that choice, as well. Once the real, three-dimensional woman with the warmth of her company was gone, I replaced her with two-dimensional illusions of real women. As for warmth and companionship, all I need is those paintings and a little imagination, but if that fails, there is always my cat, Lady Macbeth.
I started buying art in earnest around the early 1990s. I was on a limited budget and bought art from local artists at street fairs and the like. The amounts I paid ranged from $50 to about $750. I was horribly stingy and negotiated the prices down mercilessly. My shame and guilt from that time still haunts me today. So now, when I want to purchase a painting from an artist, I simply ask them the price at which they will happily part with their work. Not lottery-winner stupid happy, mind you, but happy nonetheless, and I tell them I will not try to negotiate the price down because it is demeaning to both the artist and to me. When dealing with galleries, I still sometimes negotiate, because they have a sizable profit margin. Most of the art from that early period I have given away. It just didn't fit in with the work I purchase now.
Toward the end of the 1990s I began to notice the work of artists trained at the intensive academies or self-taught in the classical tradition, and while the prices were much higher than I was accustomed to paying, the power and beauty of the art was overwhelming. Starting in college, I thought that modern art, particularly from 1890 until the late 1930s, was the greatest art ever painted. But seeing this contemporary art caused me to revalue classical representational painting relative to modern art. For me, the final surrender of modern art occurred in, of all places, Las Vegas in 1999, at an exhibition of the billionaire Steve Wynn's collection. Paintings by masters of modern art were hung side-by-side with old masters, and I felt the modern paintings deflate like old tires. The first expensive (for me) painting I purchased was in 1999 at Ann Nathan's gallery in Chicago. It was a large canvas whose subject was four female nudes. The price was $10,000, and Ann sized me up and declared that the frame of that painting probably cost more than any painting I had bought previously. If you know Ann, you know she can be judgmental, but in my case, sadly, she was dead right.
After that I kept adding nudes to my collection, always realist and by artists with exceptional training, but the gender of the artist was not a factor in my decisions, until maybe the last eight years, when I have chosen to specialize further to paintings of women by women artists. The Women Painting Women series of exhibitions had nothing to do with my choice. I was very late to obtain the most basic computer literacy, and I had no knowledge of those exhibits until recently. Rather, it was a gradual realization that I generally preferred the female perspective on the female nude to that of a man. Sometimes, it is simply that male painters overly sexualize their models, even unconsciously. And while women artists aren't immune from sexualizing their models every bit as much as men, the fact that the painting was conceived by a woman (funny how that just came out...), makes the sexualization less predatory in my mind. I suspect most philosophy majors in college could easily tear my last argument apart.
My living space preceded the art collection—it was the townhouse I bought to accommodate my girlfriend, her two children from a previous marriage, me, and two cats. The walls always had paintings, but there was more wall than there was art. When we got divorced about 12 years later, she didn't want the place; so, I kept it as it was convenient to shopping and public transportation (I like Chicago's CTA, and I absolutely love New York's MTA. If you go by what you read in the newspapers, I am alone in my feelings for the NYC subway). I always said, half-jokingly, that your home should resemble the inside of your mind. Once I was alone, I set about doing just that. I did a lot of decorative things myself on the walls and ceilings with Thai unryu paper, acrylic paint, and glass, and then I filled every square inch of wall space with art. First-time visitors are overwhelmed—it is just too much art to take in at once and appreciate, 150 or so paintings, but I live with them, and they are like old friends to me. Just imagine if the Metropolitan Museum of Art rented out the open central spaces in all their galleries. You could have a bed, a bathtub, and a dresser; sorry, no stove, you have to go out to eat. How great would that be! Well, maybe not so great for the museum's patrons, but for me it would be heaven. That was the idea behind my home, minus the priceless art. I have spent far more on the art in my home than on purchasing the home itself. I really need to remodel the kitchen and bathrooms, but I can't bear the dust and disturbance to the paintings. Everyone has to make compromises in life; that is mine.
Do you play any other roles in the arts? What relationship are you interested in developing or maintaining with artists and the art world?
I am involved with a Chicago theater ensemble that presents avant-garde, mostly European plays. I support contemporary dance companies, and one of the opera companies in Chicago. And I buy as much art as I can, more than I have space for. What bothers me about collecting art is that once a painting moves into my home, it is seen by relatively few people. Paintings are extroverts, even if their creators are not. They need to mingle with people and try to seduce them. My paintings are more akin to restive nuns in a convent, struggling against their narrow confinement. I have a running joke with Patty Watwood, whose home is filled with her nudes and they are for sale, that she is not an artist, but rather a madam in a nineteenth-century brothel, and I am a lecherous old man of good taste, with a fine reputation among women of ill repute.
What moves you in a piece of work? How do you decide that you love a piece enough you need to invite it to come live with you?
The paintings I want to live with have certain things in common—they are of women, for the most part of women that are generally viewed as attractive, and for the most part nude. I realize this sounds crass and objectifying and exploitative, but it would be dishonest of me to claim some purely higher ground to my preferences in art. However, there are many paintings of attractive, nude women out there, yet only a few interest me. So it goes far deeper than the crude laws of attraction and desire. Sometimes, it is the craftsmanship, or the pose of the model, an expression captured by the artist, or something missing in the model that begs questions and discomfort. A painting of a nude needs to provoke as well as seduce. I like to know what an artist specifically has in mind when creating a painting. Whenever I hear an artist say, "There is no right answer, it's open to the viewer's interpretation," I think, that's total bullshit, a cop-out, and I have no interest in the work. I avoid anything that strikes me as merely pin-up material. I have noticed certain repeated themes in my collecting - water and baths, pregnancy and annunciation, the story of Eve, reflections and mirrors. Beyond that, whatever drives my passion, or anybody's for that matter, remains elusive.
I’d like to add an aside to this. It is a feature I perceive as a trend in the painting of nudes; actually, it may be a trend throughout American society. It is the absence of pubic hair on female nudes. This is not in the least a thumbs up or thumbs down factor when I view a painting. More of a curiosity, with an added darker dimension in the distant background. What has happened to pubic hair on women? Why did it disappear? It has become, it seems, an endangered species. National Geographic should do a documentary, "Vanishing Pubic Hair in the Midsection of America." I get that for artists it makes work easier, not having to render all those troublesome little hairs, and we are about 500 years past the point of fig leaves. Maybe it makes a woman feel younger or better about herself. There is something more to the question, and it troubles me. Perhaps I'm getting too Freudian here, but I think a little part of the urge of women to remove their pubic hair, and especially the urge of men to want women to do so, relates to the male fantasy of being with an underage, pre-pubescent girl. A pleasant article about an art collection has no call to delve into dark regions of the mind, but I have to bring this up, even if I am the only one who perceives it in this way. I look forward to the time when the fashion returns to a more naturally adorned vulva.
Tell us a little bit about a few favorite pieces in your collection—maybe how you encountered them, or what you learned from them, or what they mean to you. Our readers will understand that talking about piece A doesn't mean you don't also love piece B.
Two paintings pop into mind, their acquisition a glimmer of good fortune, the benevolence of the Gods of art. They are Hot Chocolate by Lee Price (a woman in a milky bath holding a bowl of hot chocolate topped with marshmallows), and Love Lost by Mavis Smith, who paints exclusively in egg tempera (a nude woman staring blankly, not quite at the viewer, with a small, repeated script—love lost—running across the painting behind her as she holds a saw in her hand. I'm not making this up). Both paintings were my favorites of the artists' work, I think their best work, and both were already sold. Then something miraculous happened —both became available again within a short time of each other. Mavis received the painting back from its buyer, and Lee's painting was returned to the gallery, Evoke Contemporary, and exchanged for another. I still marvel over the fortuitous blessing.
What artists are you tracking? What are you looking for in art these days?
I'm not sure what you mean by "tracking". Is that a social media device? I'm not on any social media. I refuse to sign up for Facebook or its step-child Instagram. Most of the artists I like use these sites extensively; so, I miss out on current doings. I have about ninety artist websites bookmarked into my tablet and follow their work that way. The internet has made finding art and artists that I like vastly more efficient. Ten or so years ago, I had to visit galleries and the once yearly Chicago International Art Exposition (now Expo). In the course of a year, I might view 150-200 paintings of the genre I collect. Now, I can do that in a couple hours.
Let me start by mentioning the artists I have multiple works by, in alphabetical order: Corey Bond, David Bowers, Carla Crawford, Christian Fagerlund, Ken Freed, Rose Freymuth-Frazier, Tracey Harris, Pam Hawkes, Steven Kenny, Laura Krifka, Daniel Maidman, Lorraine Sack, Camie Salaz, Mavis Smith, Bruno Surdo, Nathalie Vogel, Patricia Watwood, the Dutch artists Cas Waterman and Caroline Westerhout, Chie Yoshii, and Genevive Zacconi. Heavy on the New York accent!
Some great painters that I have only one work by barely need mentioning to realist figurative collectors: Assael, Bowland, Sprick, Monks, Chapin, Ansell, Sprung, Vinson, Lucasiewicz. Painters that deserve a wider audience: Kate Stone, Anna Wypych, Casey Krawczyk, and Kimberly Dow. Finally, painters who have given up art to make a living—I wish they would come back—Nathalie Vogel, Noh Enjeong, and Tara Juneau.
What are your hopes for art, in itself and in its relation to society at large?
I can't imagine the sullenness of living without art—fine art, film, theater, dance, and music. I'm lucky, and I'm spoiled; for many people, art is a luxury, not a necessity. I am by my nature and by my business of risk-taking not a pessimist, but acutely aware of all the things that can go wrong with any endeavor; so, I approach the world, both the real world and the world of ideas, with caution. Here are my cautionary thoughts on the place of art in a challenging world.
We live in a time of government cutbacks in funding for the arts (and schools, healthcare, streets, sewers, and subways, but that is another story). Foundations are taking up the slack, and I'm cautiously optimistic on that. The expanding income inequality of the nation is mirrored in the art market price inequality, where a relative handful of artists and their galleries capture the lion's share of the money spent on art. The same people who are behind the one are behind the other—the hedge fund billionaires, the corporate titans, the internet disrupters, the inherited rich. I'm not condemning the extremely successful, not in the least. They work incredibly hard and they are very smart, with the possible exception of the last category I mentioned. Perhaps they aren't aware of the long-term damage to the spirit of people left in the wake of their yachts.
They pay advisors and curators to assemble a collection for them, competing with each other for the same artists. Art is a place to park some of their money. They are buying a financial investment and buying cultural respectability, while painting over their cultural ignorance (pun intended). It is a testament to human hope that so many talented artists strive to be heard, to be seen, in the face of these odds, but the path from painter to painter making a living from art is extremely difficult.
Another concern of mine is related to the debacle faced by musicians and filmmakers over the ease of digital reproduction of their copyrighted material. There will come a time when printing technology will permit anyone with a hi-res image to construct a near-perfect facsimile of an oil painting on canvas or board (not simply a good print on paper). What then, for contemporary artists? Will they lose control of their creations? Scary stuff.
Explain again why you don’t want to be pictured in any photographs of your collection.
The paintings in my home do not belong to me; they belong to the artists who created them, and I am merely their transitory caretaker. You can use this last sentence in lieu of my photograph.