Manhattan's West Side has plenty of artist studios, but none quite like Hunt Slonem's. Kurt Andersen recently dropped by the artist's eccentric space, which is housed on the third floor of a football field-sized warehouse. It's stuffed with plaster busts, chandeliers, neo-gothic furniture, Persian rugs, porcelain tchotchkes, and a greenhouse worth of lush foliage.
"You know, why did Rousseau live in Paris and paint tigers?" Slonem asks. "Recreating it is harder."
Then there are the birds – lots of them, inside cages and out. (One cockatoo tried to eat our microphone.) Slonem's birds are an endless source of inspiration for the artist who spent part of his childhood in Hawaii and later lived in Nicaragua. When he's not painting tropical birds or butterflies Slonem turns to another favorite subject – rabbits.
"I discovered one night, late in a Chinese restaurant, that I'm the sign of a rabbit – and I sort of start the day doing these little pieces," he says. Set in Victorian-era frames salvaged from a local flea market, the rabbit paintings cover an entire studio wall. "I hate leaving a wall bare," says Slonem. "It makes me nervous."
For years, Slonem has been experimenting with a unique method of texturizing his works which he calls "cross-hatching." He scrapes through multiple layers of wet paint using the whittled end of a paint brush handle.
"It has a feeling of a tapestry, it's like weaving," he tells Kurt. "I'm making colors bleed into each other, I'm revealing the under-painting. I'm making these marks to allow the light to come through, basically. So you're seeing about five levels of paint, instead of one."
Slonem lives large and approaches his life as its own work of art. He revels in pleasure, in color, in excess of all kinds. As far as he's concerned, "Shouldn't that be what life is about?"
Video: Kurt Andersen visits Hunt Slonem's studio