Essay by Dr. Cheryl Kramer: Ithaca College, September 2009
In Spectacle Spectacular: Cautionary Tales and Other Stories, Dawn Hunter explores the visual messages
embodied in popular culture. Through her engagement with the evolution of the female body in mass media,
she exposes the mythology of popular culture and reveals its influence on contemporary gendered identity.
The work stems from Hunter’s careful study of Vogue magazine, specifically from 1980-2000. The artist
begins each work by analyzing numerous magazines. After distilling the complex and often contradictory
messages about women encoded in these spreads, she then makes a three-dimensional maquette of a
selection of images, which allows her to move beyond reproducing flat, two-dimensional photographs. Working
from these three-dimensional collages results in a layering of images that are disjoined from their original
context. By subtly altering and regrouping her source material, she creates visual dissonance, as seen in
A Matter of Time, 2009.
A Matter of Time, 2009, from the Spectacle
Spectacular Paintings portfolio. This image is
a thumbnail, click on it to view it in greater detail..
Hunter’s use of photography to stage her work is similar to that of
American artist Richard Estes who, beginning in the 1960s,
assimilated numerous photographic stills to collect and record
information on the urban landscape in photorealist paintings
such as Bus Reflection (Ansonia), 1974 (Private Collection).
Hunter’s figures are similarly related in a formal sense or by the
activity they are engaged in, but, as seen in Nice Girls Don’t
Paint Like That, 2006, they remain emotionally isolated from one
another. Unlike Estes, however, the brushstrokes are visible and
serve to remove the paintings from their photographic sources.
The Spectacle Spectacular series can be read as mass media still lifes. One of the principle genres of
Western art, still-life painting is characterized by the arrangement of diverse inanimate objects, including
food, plants, and artifacts, usually within a domestic setting. Traditionally, still lifes celebrated material
pleasures such as food and wine, and could be read as a warning about the ephemeral nature of these
pleasures and the brevity of human life.
Unlike works by Dutch painters such as Pieter Claesz (1597-1660) and Willem Kalf (1619-1693),
Hunter’s still lifes focus on fashion images and their coded messages. She does not comment on the
transience of life, but on the fleeting nature of beauty and the variable notions of female identity
found in her source imagery. The painterly surface of her works is more in keeping with the still life
work of the French realist and impressionist Edouard Manet (1832-1883). In works such as Oysters,
1862 (Washington, DC, National Gallery of Art), Manet’s seemingly simple arrangement of oysters,
lemon, cup, and fork belies a rich array of textures—here, the smooth, watery oysters against the
rough, dry shell, and the juicy flesh of the lemon contained within its waxy rind. Hunter’s contradiction
similarly lies in the tactility of her work—the viewer is reminded that these are paintings, which is at
odds with the smooth, glossy texture of her source material.
Everybody is Most Beautiful, 2007, from the Spectacle
Spectacular Drawings portfolio. This image is a
thumbnail, click on it to view it in greater detail..
In Every Body is Most Beautiful, 2007, Hunter turns to art history as well as popular culture as she
paraphrases nineteenth- and twentieth-century painting, film, and fashion photography. Within a
circular composition she presents a chronological narrative of story and source, which is reinforced
by her use of the gaze. The nineteenth-century bather on the right is a passive subject for the
(male) viewer to gaze upon. In the center the woman at the dressing table has her roots in Manet’s
Victorine Meurent, the artists favorite model, twentieth-century American and European painting, and
Fashion magazines use images to sell goods; by removing the products, Hunter also comments on
consumerism. In works such as Design of a Classic Conception, 2007, the women seem out of place
Save Me and Save Yourself, 2008. Here, environments have been depleted of their richness,
desolated by consumption. Her use of layering and disjunction, both in form and iconography, result
in what she describes as “immediate and resonant psychological experience[s] for the viewer.”
Hunter received her Master of Fine Arts in painting the University of California at Davis and cites her experience with the California Funk movement,
particularly from her graduate professors Robert Arneson (1930-1992) and Roy De Forest (1930-2007), as pivotal. Funk artists fused playfulness
with sources from popular culture in an effort to engage the everyday viewer and reintroduce a sense of social responsibility to contemporary art.
Hunter’s work is similarly irreverent and iconoclastic. Her work is grounded by an internal framework, and the linear nature of her paintings recalls
the draftsmanship of Arneson, who also taught her the importance of humor and the power she possessed as both a woman and an artist. From De
Forest’s visual tales she learned the strength of narrative.
Her works are not scathing critiques but an invitation for the viewer to investigate further, to question and to draw their own conclusions. Indeed,
the strength of Hunter’s work lies in its impact on the audience. She states that viewers may love or hate her work, but they are never neutral.
Spectacle Spectacular was selected for exhibition by the Handwerker interns Jade Ang and Marianne Dabir who, after reviewing scores of exhibition
proposals, argued that the Ithaca College audience would find resonance in Hunter’s exploration of the visual messages embedded in popular culture
and of women in mass media. How right they were—Hunter’s work has generated much discussion amongst viewers from the moment we opened
Invaluable support for this exhibition was provided by Desiree Alexander, Kaila Armbruster, Brody Burroughs, Juliana Byard, Jessie Cacciola, Cindy
French and the Offica of Variable Data and Media Technology Services, Jennifer Germann, Jennifer Jolly, Suzanne Lynch, Lauren O’Connell, John
Roberstson and the Office of Facilities, Anna Pattis, and Laurie Ward. Special thanks to Jade Ang (English ’10) and Marianne Dabir (Journalism ’11)
for their insight. Finally, I am indebted to Dawn Hunter for enthusiastically sharing such exciting and provocative work with us.
Dr. Cheryl Kramer
She directly meets the gaze of her gentleman caller reflected in the mirror, who reminds us of our
role as viewer. The composition culminates in a late twentieth-century runway model on the left, who
is aloof and indifferent to our gaze, as well as our presence. In this narrative of women dressing,
she presents an evolution of gendered identity and the role of women in visual images.
recent studio work about Ramón y Cajal.
Visit dawnhunterart.blogspot to see the
All of the images on this page are thumbnails, please click on the thumbnails of each work below to view a larger, full screen image.
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