Walking through the rooms of artist Hunt Slonem’s installation at the Taubman Museum of Art feels like visiting a movie set — particularly a humorously haunted house like the ones found in “The Addams Family” or “Beetlejuice.”
Slonem, 68, isn’t specifically aiming for that effect, but there are certainly aspects of early 20th-century spiritualism involved, and elements of 19th-century architecture that evokes what he calls an atmosphere of “lost splendor.” Add colorful patterns of rabbits, birds and President Abraham Lincoln reminiscent of the repeated images of Andy Warhol’s silkscreen prints, and the vibe tilts toward playful rather than spooky.
“HUNTOPIA,” which fills two adjacent Taubman galleries, will stay on display through March 29, 2020.
Assembling the show involved extensive community collaboration. “It’s everything from who we’ve borrowed works from to where Hunt has purchased furniture to where he’s had it upholstered,” said Taubman Executive Director Cindy Petersen. In addition to Slonem’s art and works by Slonem and others from the Taubman’s collection, there’s art borrowed from the Eleanor D. Wilson Museum at Hollins, Olin Hall Galleries at Roanoke College, the Maier Museum of Art at Randolph College and from private collectors, including the collections of retired Norfolk Southern CEO David Goode and his wife, Susan, and retired Norfolk Southern vice chairman John Turbyfill and his wife, Kate.
There’s also furniture borrowed from the Historical Society of Western Virginia and from regional antique shops such as Roanoke’s Black Dog Salvage. A massive entrance arch, once part of a bank, dominates the hub of the installation, on loan from Black Dog. “When we walked into Black Dog Salvage with Hunt, he said, ‘That’s it!,’” Petersen said. “Mike Whiteside and Robert Kulp worked with us to make this happen in this space.”
“This is the first piece we found, kind of glued the show together,” Slonem said Monday. “It really gave the whole room a feeling for what we are trying to do, time travel amidst the new and the old, from the 1860s to today.”
Tables are clustered with tall candles, paintings are packed with toucan beaks, large ornate chandeliers dangle from the ceiling. One candle-covered table features a crystal ball at its center and images of Lincoln all around.
“The reason for the crystal ball is that I work with a lot of mystics, and we talk to Lincoln,” Slonem said. “Lincoln worked with mystics. I always thought it was Mary Todd.” According to Slonem’s research, the 16th American president “went to mediums every day when he fought the Civil War.”
Dressed in a jacket that blended well with his upholstery designs, Slonem spoke about communicating with the spirits of the dead, including that of Lincoln, with nary a wink nor the bat of an eyelash. “He’s a very powerful spiritual being. Certainly one of our top greatest presidents. He’s still very involved, gives me advice and guidance.” He added that he didn’t care whether or not anyone believes his claims.
A Navy brat born in Maine, Slonem went to Nicaragua as an exchange student while still a teenager and earned an art degree from Tulane University in New Orleans. In 1973, he moved to New York, where he at first worked as an art instructor for the social services department, but crossing paths with figures such as still-life painter Janet Fish, abstract artist Ruth Kligman and Warhol himself helped Slonem land gallery shows and establish a career. In 1978, he painted an 80-foot mural inside tower one of the World Trade Center.
His studio in Brooklyn doubles as an aviary, where he keeps about 50 tropical birds. Video footage suggests that “HUNTOPIA” bears some resemblance to his studio.
Slonem said his inspirations for “HUNTOPIA” and similar installations he has assembled at other museums around the world include Henri Matisse’s 1911 painting “The Red Studio,” which fascinated him as a boy, and Warhol’s “Raid the Icebox” exhibition in 1969, in which Warhol delved into the collection of the Museum of Art at the Rhode Island School of Design and chose to have groups of objects displayed exactly as they appeared while in storage.
Slonem, like Warhol, acted as curator of “HUNTOPIA,” collaborating with Taubman assistant curator Eva Thornton. Taubman board member Joanne Leonhardt Cassullo, a Roanoke College alumna who serves as secretary of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, helped bring Slonem’s show to Roanoke.