‘Humans can no more be masters of their destiny than any other animal,’ wrote John Gray in his polemic 2002 publication, Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals. Positing the human race as the tumour ‘Homo Rapiens’, Gray decried human-centric systems of belief as the cause of planetry malady. Kenny Hunter agrees it is a frightening concept, but it’s one which captured his imagination. Where Gray offers macro-analysis, Hunter’s self-portrait ‘X-Rex’ seeks to explore the micro or ‘the self as an illusion’.
‘X-Rex’ is one in a series of three self-portraits using the same classicised bust, made over ten years ago and revisited for Divided Selves, an exhibition of Scottish seld-portraiture from the 17th century to the present, at Edinburgh’s Talbot Rice Gallery, 22 April – 3 June. Theatrical, destructive and studio-based, ‘X-Rex’ is a radical departure from the monumental, toy-like clarity that has previously characterised Hunter’s work. And yet it remains attuned to his motovating concerns: the non-linear essence of history, the prevalence of human vanity and the synthetic nature of contemporary life. Hunter has no real interest in laying his ‘self’ bare; his critique is of the greater human self and its fear of obsolescence.
In his three self-portraits, Hunter strove for a visual language that was expressive, personal and imperfect. The bust itself is pure white, blank-eyed and distant, but the physical devices used by Hunter in each piece are splintered, workman’s objects that by their presence alone dislocate the nobility that protudes from his Roman nose. ‘X-Rex’ is the most expressive of all; existing now as a shattered gesture recorded on film, it is a spectacular affront to the human need for material memorial and effigy.
His children, Rosie and Joe, took a little persuading to topple the plaster bust of their father from a sculptor’s banker in his studio. The request of their participation in its demolition was anathema to all they knew about the sanctity of art, of artefacts and of their parents. No rehearsal was allowed and the studio environment, littered with toddlers’ toys and greasy fingerprints, became an ambiguous playground-stage in which this subversion of portraiture was enacted. The object was fragile, yet the act finite; ‘In a way you become very aware of your own mortality as soon as your child is born,’ Hunter reflects. ‘You realise that you will turn to dust.’
‘X-Rex’ is an iconoclast exploration of the modern portrait bust. And, just as the visual language taps into both the historic tumbling of statuary and the contemporary impulse for destruction, its title punningly embraces both Latin terms for royalty and the language of pop culture and technology. It is a fitting analogy for the paradoxical modern divided self and the desire to be both history’s protagonist and today’s celebrity.
Kate Cowcher is a freelance arts writer