The paintings of Anita Kunz transfix the eye and pull the viewer into a realm of visual metaphor. In addition to making pleasing images, Kunz strives to engage viewers' minds with powerful symbols and allusions to the art of the past. Kunz's distinctive style, remarkable technical skills, and intellectual insight have made her internationally renowned for her provocative portraiture as well as her imaginative pictorial response to widely varied topics, including U.S. politicians, performing artists, finance, women's issues, AIDS, and child abuse. Her works appear regularly as cover art and editorial illustration for Time, Newsweek, GQ, The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post Magazine, and The New Yorker.
Kunz is the first Canadian artist to be honored with a solo exhibition in the Swann Gallery for Caricature and Cartoon. As a Canadian she brings a special viewpoint to works that deal with issues or subjects that involve the United States.This exhibition features sixteen paintings selected from a recent gift by the artist to the Library of Congress.The paintings chosen for the exhibition include political satire, witty caricature and portraiture, commentary on economic and health issues, as well as on women's issues, and on darker themes such as child abuse.The selection reflects the rich variety to be found in the hundreds of paintings that Kunz has created during her twenty-two-year career.
Kunz has received prestigious awards and critical acclaim from her peers, including the 2003 Hamilton King Award from the Society of Illustrators in New York. Her paintings and sculptures have been exhibited and published internationally, and she recently had solo exhibitions in the Creation Gallery in Tokyo (1998) and the Museum of American Illustration in New York City (2000). In addition to cover art and illustrations for leading magazines, Kunz has also created cover designs for more than fifty books. Her work is represented in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery, the Musée Militaire de France in Paris, the Galleria Comunale d'Arte Moderna e Contemporanea in Rome, as well as the Library of Congress. She has juried shows of work by fellow illustrators, given lectures, and taught workshops at universities and arts institutions in the United States and Canada. In addition to these accomplishments, Kunz stands apart from her peers by virtue of her distinctive style, outstanding technical skill, and the sheer range of subjects that she depicts.
Born in 1956 in Toronto, Kunz grew up in Kitchener, Ontario, and began to draw at the age of five. Her uncle Robert Kunz, an educational illustrator whose motto was "Art for Education," inculcated in her the idea that art could contribute to the fabric of society.At the Ontario College of Art, from which she graduated in 1978, she studied with New York illustrator Doug Johnson (b.1940).Through her academic training as well as her exposure to concept-driven art by illustrators such as Sue Coe (b. 1951), Russell Mills (b.1952), and Marshall Arisman (b.1938), she was inspired to make content and concept vital components of her art.
Kunz began her career with advertising assignments but soon sought other types of work. She was one of two artists chosen by Rolling Stone to produce a monthly illustrated History of Rock 'n' Roll end paper between 1988 and1990. Even Kunz's early work shows imaginative approaches to portrait and editorial assignments. In her 1982 portrait, Ray Charles, she highlights Charles's open hands and jokingly composes his smile with piano key teeth. However, the sinister skull teeth in Serial Killers (1986) offer a chilling contrast. In Alcoholism (1985) she takes a metaphorical approach to the subject, likening the alcoholic's state to that of drowning, being engulfed and losing control and hope.
As both a portraitist and caricaturist, Kunz does not aim to devastate, but rather says she intends "to poke gentle fun at her subjects," illuminating their essential traits by distorting or accentuating key features. An example is her depiction of Whoopi Goldberg (1992), in which she renders Goldberg's smiling face as a broadened, sculptural form as befits the actress's larger-than-life personality.With care and ingenuity, Kunz inscribes Goldberg's corn rows with words relevant to the performing artist's life and thereby captures her hair's texture and style while also highlighting her career and character. In St. Hillary (1993) Kunz employs the iconography of religious portraiture to create an ironic portrait of Hillary Clinton as Joan of Arc. Shown with a halo, upward gazing face, and heroically clad in armor and carrying a sword, Kunz's figure of Clinton evokes the patience and passion of the martyred saint.This symbolic portrait accompanied a 1993 article about the First Lady, which discussed her views on virtue, politics, and the role of government in peoples' lives. Both depictions underscore Kunz's impressive abilities in drawing and painting and effective use of symbol and allusion.
Kunz's paintings reflect a range of artistic influences. Her technique resembles that of fifteenth-century Flemish artists whose oil paintings are characterized by glowing light, rich color, and clearly detailed rendering of forms that have symbolic and narrative significance. Much like these traditional "Old Masters," Kunz begins each picture with a drawing in pencil, carefully applies glazes of watercolor often combined with gouache, and gradually builds up layers of translucent colors to achieve similarly dazzling effects of color and light. Her vivid paintings derive narrative power from forms depicted realistically in extraordinary detail and invested with symbolic and allegorical meaning. In her selective use of distorted form and exaggerated color to express emotions, Kunz also draws upon European Expressionism (1905-1930). Other paintings show the influence of Surrealism (1920s-1930s) in their poetic, dream-like visions with haunting details.
Kunz's remarkable technical skills complement her exceptional ability to grasp the essential idea of a text that she is assigned to illustrate and devise imagery that illuminates it in a thoughtful, visually compelling way. She has said repeatedly that the nature of each subject determines and drives the aesthetic approach she deploys. Both abilities enable her to handle assignments on a wide range of topics.
Her Canadian vantage point on global affairs comes across pointedly in many of her works.The contrast between Canada, with its smaller population and economy, and its dynamic, dominating neighbor sharply informs her sense of global power relations, a theme she conveys vividly in both Global Bully? (1997) and Would Anyone Notice if Canada Disappeared? (2003). Global Bully? was published as a cover for an issue of the Canadian edition of Time.The provocative image and lead article question how the world perceived American strength during President Bill Clinton's second term of office. Kunz depicts the United States symbolically as a hybrid creature with an eagle's head atop a muscular human body flexing its arms; she tempers the figure's aggressive posture with a humorous detail—tiny red, white, and blue briefs. Kunz incorporates multiple meanings in this picture: not only does she poke fun at the superpower strength of the U.S., but by showing the figure alone on a white background, she suggests that its strength and behavior can have an isolating effect.
In Would Anyone Notice if Canada Disappeared? (2003) Kunz excises Canada—her native country and the world's second largest nation—leaving an immense void north of the United States.This arresting view of the globe was published on another cover of the Canadian edition of Time and dramatically illuminates the lead article discussing the nation's decreasing influence in world affairs.
Kunz's distinctive, often skeptical Canadian outlook also lends an irreverent edge to her humorous portrayals of U.S. leaders. During the 2000 presidential election she created Cheerleaders (2000) for an article in GQ that chronicled the history of male college cheerleaders in the U.S. In this amusing picture she distills the article's central point—that key Republican leaders, including two past Republican presidents and the Senate majority leader, were cheerleaders in college.The inclusion of George Bush, Jr., then a leading contender for the presidency, shows the persistence of this phenomenon.
In addition to political themes, Kunz illustrates topics in health and medicine for both mainstream magazines and science journals. Human Guinea Pigs (2002) is a visual response to an article on human testing of various drugs and medical treatments.To get her point across, she depicts a naked and vulnerable human figure hunched uncomfortably inside a small cage.
Kunz finds illustrating aspects of finance and business the most challenging assignments. However, she meets these challenges with striking visual commentary, as seen, for example, in Fear of Finance (1991). In this imaginative piece she shows a fearful Everyman cramped and constricted within a tiny picture frame covered with minuscule copies of U.S. currency, documents with stamps and seals, a gold MasterCard, images of a house, and a bottle of chardonnay. These tangible objects, symbolic of financial transactions and desires, surround and overwhelm the anxious figure in this striking cover image that highlights an article on investors' ambivalence about investing for the future.
This painting and Hands (ca.1997) also demonstrate Kunz's special talent for combining highly detailed drawing with collage into a harmonious whole. Her unusual ability to infuse a global vision into her symbolic imagery is also evident in Hands, which was produced for an article in Time about the worldwide AIDS epidemic and possible cures and treatments for the disease. In contrast with the universalizing tone of Hands, however, another vivid example, Child Abuse (ca.1992), was created in response to a specific, first person account of appalling ritual child abuse perpetrated by a satanic cult. That Kunz can create compelling imagery for stories about such disparate and divergent topics speaks to her impressive range and insight as a creative artist.
Anita Kunz has a love for drawing and painting, a passion for illuminating the essential significance of leading topics and people of the day, and a commitment to idealism and social responsibility as a creator. As she says, "Freedom to express a visual opinion on a wide range of subjects is for me the reason to become an illustrator. Illustration has the power, potentially, to move people emotionally and challenge them intellectually. By its very nature, illustration can question conventions and generate reactions. In a society such as ours, where art is frequently undervalued, this carries an unparalleled power, given the exposure to a wide audience."
Martha H. Kennedy, Exhibition Curator