By MARTHA KENNEDY
The paintings of Anita Kunz transfix the eye and transport the viewer into a realm of visual metaphor. She does more than create pleasing images; she engages viewers' minds with powerful symbols and allusions to art of the past. Kunz's distinctive style, remarkable technical skills and intellectual insight have brought her international recognition both for her provocative portraiture and her incisive pictorial responses to widely varied topics, including American politicians, performing artists, finance, women's issues, AIDS and child abuse. Her works appear regularly as cover art and editorial illustrations for Time, Newsweek, GQ, The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post Magazine and The New Yorker.
As a Canadian citizen, Kunz brings a unique perspective to her artistic commentaries on global social, cultural and political issues, and she is the first Canadian artist to be honored with a solo exhibition in the Swann Gallery for Caricature and Cartoon. "Canadian Counterpoint: Illustrations by Anita Kunz" features 16 paintings drawn from her recent gift of 23 paintings to the Library of Congress; it is on view from Sept. 4 to Jan. 3, 2004.
In a slide lecture at the Library on Sept. 16, Kunz took members of a large audience on a kaleidoscopic tour of her artistic work. Stating that she has considered herself a working artist from a very young age, she stressed that she has never subscribed to the idea that fine art is a separate and elitist field of human creativity.
During her presentation, Kunz frequently explained the contexts of her images, most of which were created for assignments for magazines.
Born in Toronto, Kunz graduated from the Ontario College of Art in 1978, and apart from a stay in London in 1982, she has lived and worked in Toronto and New York City for her whole career.
In the process of finding her own voice, she said she searched for metaphors and ways of insinuating meaning into her images, rather than simply making straightforward representations of subjects. She prefers "to draw from my head, which allows me to experiment, and not use photographs."
Observing that there has been a recent increase in art direction and editing of illustrations, Kunz stated that she wants as much creative freedom as possible. After a series of lively portraits and caricatures of performing artists and political figures, she showed examples of cover art, commenting that she enjoys making "a picture about the germ of an idea" that illuminates a journal's leading story. Themes connected with child development, child abuse, women's issues, biology and sex have particularly engaged her over the years.
The paintings chosen for Kunz's Swann Gallery exhibition reflect not only her Canadian outlook but also the rich variety to be found in the hundreds of paintings that she has created during her 25-year career. Early work shows imaginative approaches to portrait and editorial assignments. In her 1982 portrait, "Ray Charles," for example, she highlights Charles' open hands and jokingly composes his smile with piano key teeth. The sinister skull teeth in "Serial Killers" (1986) offer a chilling contrast.
Kunz's paintings often remind viewers of 15th-century Flemish artists' oil paintings, which are characterized by glowing light, rich color and clearly detailed rendering of forms that have symbolic and narrative significance. Kunz begins each picture with a drawing in pencil, 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 paintings derive narrative power from forms depicted realistically in fine detail and invested with symbolic and allegorical meaning.
Kunz's remarkable technical skills complement her ability to grasp the essential idea of a text that she is assigned to illustrate and devise imagery that illuminates it in a visually compelling way. She has said repeatedly that the nature of each subject determines and drives the aesthetic approach she deploys.
As a portraitist and caricaturist, Kunz does not aim to devastate,
but intends rather "to poke gentle fun at her subjects," revealing
their essential traits by distorting or accentuating key features.
She renders Whoopi Goldberg's smiling face, for example, as a broadened,
sculptural form as befits the actress' larger-than-life personality.
Kunz inscribes Goldberg's corn rows with words relevant to the performing
artist's life and thus captures her hair's appearance while also highlighting
her career and character.
In "St. Hillary" (1993) Kunz employs the iconography of Old Master religious portraiture to create an ironic portrait of Hillary Clinton as Joan of Arc. Shown with a halo, upward-gazing face, heroically clad in armor, and carrying a sword, Kunz's figure of Clinton evokes the patience and passion of the martyred saint.
Kunz's Canadian vantage point on global affairs comes across pointedly in "Global Bully?" (1997) and "Would Anyone Notice if Canada Disappeared?" (2003). The contrast between Canada, with its smaller population and economy and its dynamic, dominating neighbor sharply informs her sense of global power relations in both pictures. The former 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. She incorporates multiple meanings in this picture: not only does she poke fun at the superpower strength of the United States, but by showing it 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 considers assignments on aspects of finance and business her most difficult challenges. In "Fear of Finance" (1991) she responds with striking visual commentary. In this conceptual 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 and a gold MasterCard. These objects, symbolic of financial transactions and desires, surround and overwhelm the anxious figure in this cover image that highlights an article on investors' ambivalence about investing for the future.
Kunz's paintings have been exhibited and published internationally. She has received a number of prestigious awards and recently had solo exhibitions in Tokyo (1998) and New York City (2000). By virtue of her distinctive style, thought-provoking work and remarkable professional record, her gift to the Library enriches and complements the permanent collections of the Prints and Photographs Division.
Martha H. Kennedy is a curatorial assistant in the Prints and Photographs Division and curator of the Anita Kunz exhibition.