Taken from the October issue of Dazed & Confused:
Little Italy, Manhattan, 1974: on the rooftop of an apartment building, sunlight accentuates the muscular ripples of a faceless man’s downy torso. His groin is level with the twin towers – those upright, rigid shafts full of thousands of testosterone-pumped American dream disciples fired up and ready to shoot their financial load. The man’s right thumb hooks itself into the loophole of his jeans while two fingers limply squeeze a half-smoked cigarette. He is all man, yet his sinewy form is powerless to prevent decapitation by the artist’s lens.
Alexis Hunter is one of the 70s’ most important feminist artists. She made paintings and photographs – such as this one, from The Objects Series – that incite pleasure, arousal and a deep contemplation of society’s latent patriarchy. It’s a trick she used to cut through the dissonance of gender-theory rhetoric that echoed through New York and London. But it didn’t always win her praise – many feminists who insisted on feminism’s separation from glamour believed her hyper-sexual, confrontational work to be obscene and dangerous.
Hunter and her twin sister, photographer and printmaker Alyson, were born in 1948 and grew up in the artistic enclave of Titirangi, Auckland, where residents were often accused of being communists. Being an identical twin had a monumental impact on her early development. “When you are born a twin you get used to an air of celebrity as a child,” she says at home in Camden. She’s communicating by tablet due to the debilitating effects of motor neurone disease. “People marvel at your identical-ness. Though we did have a fair amount of bullying too, as other children and teachers were frightened of us. Nobody could tell us apart, which was dangerous as we had such different personalities. So we were given the collective noun ‘Twinnie’.”
In 1968-9 the twins attended the Elam School of Fine Arts, where news of the 1968 Paris riots filtered through to seismic effect. Keen to test the parameters of capitalist society, Hunter made her first major departure from the family in 1970, when she joined a commune in Cairns, Australia, after a hitchhiking tour with future film producer Janine Dickins.
“We made friends with some people who approached us to live with them,” recalls Hunter. “At first we thought, ‘Why not?’ But living on stolen food with the local men from the town shooting rifles into the tents at night showed me you couldn’t get away from social conditioning and so I left, determined to be an activist within ‘the system’.”
I thought, if my photos are considered sexist, could you do sexist paintings of men? I made a 25ft-long panel of paintings of male sexual-fetishism tattoos, heavy jewellery, leather...
Hunter moved to Auckland for a short time in a bid to launch her career. She developed an interest in tattoos, which would form the focus of her career in years to come. It was an interest that got her into occasional trouble; one night while drinking with Mãori builders of the Sky Tower in Auckland, a young man offered to show her the tattoos on his thighs. Before she could stop him, the men on the neighbouring table had accused him aggressively of “downing trou” in front of a lady.
When the commotion had died down, the man went into a recital of his whakapapa – his lineage – naming his ancestors since the family’s arrival in Aotearoa (the Mãori name for New Zealand). “Which is a cultural response to a threat,” explains Hunter. “I said it was my fault for asking to see his tattoos.” The two tables made amends after emptying the pot of collected money to buy more beers. “But it’s not like in England. In New Zealand the pot buys a round when the first person has finished, not the last. I couldn’t keep up. I was sizzled. Stepping outside, I saw a big ‘ALEXIS HUNTER’ blazoned across the main street and thought it was some higher force telling me off. Until I realised it was the local museum’s banner for my own exhibition.”
This show and others in New Zealand received bad reviews. “I spent weeks crying on my bed and eventually resolved never to cry again at a bad review. I thought, ‘I have to go to a place where people understand.’” Her friend Louise Renisson (future author of Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging) got her a ticket on a ship when a cancellation came up, and the pair travelled to London via the Panama canal in 1972. There Hunter joined the Artists Union, threw herself into reading and began to formulate the grounds of her feminist practice. “It was very important for us to understand the history, to understand how we were different,” she says, citing Karl Marx, Ingmar Bergman, French political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville and second-wave feminist Kate Millett as influences.
In the same year she arrived in London, Hunter also travelled to Paris. She was 24 and stayed in an apartment that 19th-century French female novelist George Sand had lived in, its walls still inscribed with her handwritten notes. The paradoxes in French culture intrigued Hunter: civility coupled with an obsessive relationship to food; bohemian lifestyles that still allowed for taking good care of your skin. She became interested in male Parisian style, how “every builder looked nattily dressed.” But taking their photographs caused confrontation, and she became increasingly interested in the relationship with the male subject.
On her return to east London, Hunter embraced the rapport she had with cockney men in carpentry shops. “They liked me, with my long red hair, tight jeans and lace-up bovver boots.” She continued these photographs of men on a visit to New York, where she took the twin towers image after meeting its subject, SoHo jeweller Alex Streeter, as well as a series of black-and-white images called Sexual Rapport: yes/no/maybe. The latter shows Hunter at her most voyeuristic, capturing her male subjects in their natural environment: working men sat on stoops, policemen on patrol and van drivers parked up, eating lunch. She partially answered the viewer’s sexual curiosities, stencilling each shot with a “yes”, “no” or – you guessed it – “maybe”. But did this have any bearing on Hunter’s own experiences? Did a ‘yes’ suggest a sexual rapport between the lens and the subject, or between Alexis Hunter and the men? The work remained purposefully ambiguous. Its sexual bravado won her acclaim among her contemporaries at AIR, the first US all-female co-operative gallery in the US, and constituted Hunter’s most widely celebrated work to date.
Then came the Tattoo Series (1974-5), picking up where Hunter’s body-art obsession left off that drunken night in New Zealand. Speaking about this interest to art historian Elizabeth Eastmond in 1993, Hunter said she was curious as to “why European men get tattooed when they are isolated from women – at sea, in prison – and why it is even less acceptable for a woman to be tattooed.” A 1975 exhibition in Newcastle that featured her photos of tattooed men and women at a naked beauty contest in New York caused huge controversy, and the director of the gallery was asked to resign. “A woman complained that my photos were sexist because they were close-ups of the body,” Hunter remembers now. “I thought, if these photographs could be thought of as sexist, could you do sexist paintings of men? I painted a 25ft-long panel of paintings of male sexual-fetishism tattoos, heavy jewellery, leather...”
In a strange way, because I cannot speak but have to write, I feel as though I have been able to communicate better about my work
Yet her defiance didn’t come naturally. “I didn’t feel assertive photographing men – I was in a vulnerable position, alone in the inner cities, and I considered the end result as a kind of partnership. I felt the tattooed men especially had a feeling of creativity in getting them made, or carving their skin in prison themselves. They seemed honoured that someone wanted to record their efforts.”
Approaches to Fear, the first of Hunter’s major shows in London, opened at the ICA in 1978, and to her disappointment received no official reviews whatsoever. That same year she launched another show at the Hayward Gallery. “I was so overcome with nerves I went to get some Dutch courage at the local pub... but I was escorted back down to the Southbank by a motley crew of criminals and cockney builders as soon as they found out I was going to dip out of attending. They really liked the free drinks and women but I didn’t enjoy it at all. I had bought what I thought were respectable clothes – a jersey top that kept on sliding off my shoulders.”
This time, the show sent tremors through the British art press – The Guardian branded it “disgusting” – and earned the art space the nickname “the Wayward Gallery”. The criticism varied from the prudish to the tenuously ideological. For many it was the nudity depicted in Hunter’s work that caused offence. For fellow feminists, it was the simple fact that it looked good; which, at a time when feminism was viewed as angry and unappealing, might have worked in its favour. “I was populist,” Hunter explains. “I wanted the work to function in a similar way to advertising.”
In this way, Hunter emerges as a feminist pioneer. Everything had been commodified in the 60s and 70s: lifestyles, eastern religions and political movements such as the Weather Underground. Feminism had to join the race. It had to look good to people. It had to seem like the right decision, not just morally, but superficially. Hunter insists that feminism cannot hope to effect change as a marginalised stance. It needs, today as much as ever, to appeal to people, not alienate them.
What’s more, Hunter didn’t just create beautiful art by feminist standards. Her photography work rivals the best of William Eggleston: vital, vivid, with a strong narrative quality and a prodigious measure for composition. The relationship between the viewer and subject is complex and emotional, ranging from tense to deeply affectionate. The work depicting Hunter’s own hands, such as Sexual Warfare (1974), uses a point-of-view camera angle that speaks directly to the viewer and forces them to imagine the movements as their own. Approach to Fear: Masculinity – Exorcise (1977), in which Hunter’s polished fingernails smear black ink across the cock and balls on an image of a muscled model, is a bold assault on male genitalia; yet it is also a vision of black ink on tanned flesh against a turquoise background. The lushness draws you in, allowing the implied symbolism to do its work.
Of all her work, Hunter is proudest of Dialogue with a Rapist (1978). The multiple-exposure series shows a street scene along with snapshots of a knife and a woman’s hand fixed around a man’s neck. A handwritten account beneath describes Hunter’s exchange with a man who tried to attack her on the streets of Bermondsey. It is as stirring a take on sexual assault as you will ever see.
Towards the end of the 1970s, Hunter travelled and wrote articles for Spare Rib before embarking on a career as an illustrator in the film industry, notably working on Disney’s The Little Mermaid (1989) – “I drew the foam,” she volunteers – and settling in Camden. At the age of 38, Hunter met Scottish ex-Saracens rugby player Baxter Mitchell at his bar, the Camden Falcon. The pair have been together ever since. “My life now is in complete contrast to in the 1970s,” she explains. “I have been married for 25 years and I am not living out of a suitcase in an empty warehouse in Hoxton. Unfortunately, I have been diagnosed with MND and cannot drink alcohol, but I don’t mind. I had to cut down anyway.”
I thought, if these photographs could be thought of as sexist, could you do sexist paintings of men? I painted a 25ft-long panel of paintings of male sexual-fetishism tattoos, heavy jewellery, leather...
She laughs from time to time as she delivers her answers via the tablet. (“Are Australian men sexist?” I ask. “Rabidly so,” she replies.) When not seeing care professionals, Hunter prepares artworks for exhibition. Early this year, she was included in Fans of Feminism at Cass Gallery in Whitechapel, and she’s currently showing as part of a two-person show (alongside Jo Spence) at the Richard Saltoun Gallery. In June, she was invited to attend a screening of a film by Nina Kellgren in Madrid that included shots of her work. During the show, the gallerist Hubert Winter went out to get a whiteboard for Hunter to write messages when he found she could not speak. “Even with MND, which has struck me dumb, the caring nature of everybody there and the excellent context which my work was shown in overrode my recent disabilities,” she says. “In a strange way, because
I cannot speak but have to write, I feel as though I have been able to communicate better about my work.”
Hunter’s belief in her cause is no less fervent today than it was 40 years ago. “The word ‘feminist’ to me conjures up a world of travel, experiment, intelligent people and bonding for a common cause,” she says. “The only way of keeping this alive is by supplanting the word with a new voice of vibrant new feminists utilising Facebook and net petitions. This third-wave feminism has all the frontiership of the radical feminists of the 1970s.”
Until September 27, ALEXIS HUNTER & JO SPENCE, Richard Saltoun Gallery, London.
Follow Nathalie Olah on Twitter here @NROlah