Yorkshire Sculpture Park provides a curious setting for a survey show of an artist who has consistently concerned himself with the human species as urban dwellers, occupied by its own artifice and culture at the expense of the natural world. However, at the Longside Gallery, Kenny Hunter’s largest solo show to date is framed by the panoramic views of the park, as seen through the Gallery’s glass wall. The languishing ‘Youth With a Split Apple’ (2004) so plainly echoes (and subverts) Henry Moore that it is hard to believe it wasn’t made to lie in this window. Views such as this stir the sentimental soul, prompting contemplation of those important things in life. It is this rolling, timeless, pastoral scene (owing much to the 18th-century engineering) that juxtaposes Hunter’s critique of today’s mutable, transitory human condition against all things green and natural.
Natural Selection is a fitting title. Referring primarily to Darwin’s theory linking the survival of a species with its ability to adapt to environmental change, it also nods to the process involved in curating such a comprehensive body of work. The show consists of both new and re-worked pieces of sculpture, cast in his familiar, seamless, glass reinforced plastic style alongside text works, drawings, photography and film. Natural Selection provide the opportunity to see Hunter’s reworked anti-monuments—such as ‘Bad Conscience and Old Skool Plastic’ (2005), which bears the words ‘Finis Gloria Mundi’ (‘The End of Worldly Glory’)—while enjoying the fruits of new departures.
Five works, the ‘Animal Virtues’ series (2004-6) are particularly interesting. Each consists of a sculpted animal amid a grouping of part-sculpted, part-found domestic or workspace detritus. Depicted are ‘r-selected’ species that, according to the theory proposed by Robert McArthur and EO Wilson, are particularly adept at responding to unstable environments. As Alex Hodby notes in the catalogue essay, Hunter’s toy-like fox, raven, cat and pigeon fulfil. l the role of animal as moral metaphor, reminiscent of Aesop’s fables. The unstable environment in which they are living is the result of material consumption, a contemporary rite of passage. True to Hunter’s style, the titles critically enhance our reading. ‘Civic Digestion’ and ‘New Romans’ wittily con. ate classical ideals of civil society with modern realities; while ‘Rise of the Raptors’ suggests entrepreneurial ruthlessness. The waste signifies not just the by-product of consumption, but humankind’s dissolution of responsibility. Countering cynicism, animal as exemplar communicates resourcefulness amidst decay.
Hunter is often touted as Ian Hamilton Finlay’s worthy heir and if viewing this work amongst greenery wasn’t enough, a series of sculpted texts (2005-6) further confirms this suggestion. Consisting of large, three dimensional white, uniform but fragmented lettering they paraphrase writers who have concerned themselves with the changing human condition. Baudelaire joins Rousseau in ‘Take a Bath in the Multitude, Adjust your Soul with Every Step’ while Marx is immortalised by ‘Everlasting Agitation’. Yeats is extended in ‘Things Fall Apart All Over Again’ and ‘If I Stand Fast They Will Dig my Grave’ tweaks Goethe. These works speak of the dangers of intransigence in the face of constant change. Comparisons with Finlay are inevitable: both artists refract current concerns through the lens of the classical. In this retrospective, however, the text works are not simply a new means to the same ends; they lay bare and consolidate the ideological bedrock of Hunter’s art.
Hunter distils complex ideas about the quintessence of things to a single visual statement. He is an artist, philosopher and agent provocateur whose work here more than ever commands sight lines beyond white walls. One sculpture stands outside the Longside gallery. ‘Lamb’, innocent, immortalised, sacrificial, stands on his artificial tree-trunk plinth admiring the view.
Kate Cowcher is a curator and writer living in London