Remembering Alexis Hunter

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Friday 21 March 2014
Ron Brownson

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Yesterday, I read letters Alexis Hunter wrote from London during the 1970s to a friend in Auckland. They were vibrant, opinionated, perceptive, engaged writings. They made me recall how strategically she always used titles for her series: Violence: Destruction of Evidence; Dialogue with a Rapist; Identity Crisis; Approach to Fear; Voyeurism; Effeminacy; Sexual Warfare; Masculinisation of Society; Oh No!.

It is unsurprising that Alexis stated ‘it was too hard to be a feminist artist on your own; the criticism was too great to bear’. In 1972 she joined Artists Union Women's Workshop in London and the group was a terrific support to her as an artist. For her, art was political and conceptual. Alexis realised early that a viewer’s perception was essential in a feminist perspective.

I knew Alexis briefly and her engagement with both cameras and xerography fascinated me. She saw lens-based reproduction as a potent tool and an imaginative basis for drawn and painterly adaptation.

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During 2006, with the assistance of the Norwich Gallery she presented her ambitious exhibition Alexis Hunter – Radical Feminism in the 1970s. The artist’s book, which accompanied the project, included memorable texts by Lucy R Lippard and John Roberts. Lucy, a keen art commentator, recalled how Alexis saw the tensions between ‘romantic love and sexual hatred’.

Alexis passed away some weeks ago and her death caused me to recall her approach to art making and remember her insight and rigour. In the 1970s she would have described herself as a radical feminist artist so it is not a revelation to say that her stance was often misunderstood back home in New Zealand.

What brought Alexis to mind is her six-part painting The Object Series of 1974–1975, which she gifted to Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki in 1990. I have shown this huge painting, which measures just over seven and a half metres, twice. Firstly in the summer of 2003–04 and then again during 2008. On the second occasion it was one of the first artworks visitors experienced when they entered the Gallery, and I often observed people lingering and looking at it carefully.

By 2003, these panels were already a generation old, dating as they do from soon after Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider and a decade later than Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising and Kustom Kar Kommandos. Like these films, The Object Series has a fond regard for the look of biker culture. To my eye, Alexis’ biker guy is more a male figure performing ‘biker boy lookalike’ than images of a wannabe biker than an authentic biker. He has more superficial style than seeming authenticity. This inherent campness of a feminist trope is what gives this mural its enduring frisson of male fetishism. In a century’s time the figure will have become almost a de trop retro-symbol of bikerness.

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Looking back I find that in 2003 I made notes on this six-part mural: The Object Series is an essential sequence in the feminist history of New Zealand art. The artist stares at a young man and objectifies him with her eroticising gaze. His staunchly masculinist posture, grubby clothing and street-wise physicality render his male sexuality as the territory of working men, muscular labourers and bike-boys.

Hunter’s male scene mirrors the hip strategies of early 1970s magazine advertising. This man is a close-up site of visual pleasure for a female’s gaze. Bits of this man are focused upon and sight-lined – forearm, groin, shoulder, hand and feet. By investigating what it means to gawk at a stereotypical bloke, Alexis Hunter represents a grisaille panorama of fetishised masculinity. The painting is an uncompromising exposé of a woman staring at a man with a commitment to feel that her eyes are entirely set upon him.

In 2008, I prepared some further notes: This early work by Alexis Hunter complements her photo-narrative sequences. It is an example of feminist rejection of the power of the male gaze to objectify women in art, in advertising and in life. By painting what she described as ‘passive, seductive men’ Hunter turns viewers into the viewed and demonstrates a disconcerting loss of male identity.

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In 2014, I wonder if I see the deliberate objectification of the painting more clearly. They are six paintings searching for masculinity’s presence. They see this male as being ‘other’, of being different, of being an alien gender reminding us who is doing the looking when we are looking. This mirroring of Alexis’ gaze as a commodification of maleness is more humorous than it appeared four decades ago. It echoes just how denim and leather jeans are marketed now, it reflects sexuality as a marketing tool reinforcing that we try to become what we desire by inhabiting a surrogacy of wish fulfillment. Lucy Lippard put it succinctly when she noted, ‘Fetishism and a hint of S&M lurk just beneath the surfaces of Hunter's photographs…’

I reckon Alexis would like the fact that The Object Series retains its skill at provocation. She once said to me that we would one day see how good her six-part painting was but added, in a knowing way, she was glad it was all there in black and white.

Alexis Hunter (1948–2014) New Zealand/United Kingdom

Image credit:
Alexis Hunter
The Object Series 1974–1975 
oil on canvas 
1015 x 7600 mm overall, in six parts 
Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki 
gift of the artist, 1990