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tom hunter interview
tom hunter interview
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Angels and devils in Hackney at The National Gallery.

It’s a rare thing to see cutting-edge contemporary art in The National Gallery. But that’s what makes photographer Tom Hunter’s latest exhibition, Living In Hell And Other Stories, so ideal.

Father & Son run £2m Vice Racket (detail) & Living in Hell (detail) by Tom Hunter.

This exhibition of large-scale photographs is a fascinating play on the frantic sensationalism of the media, particularly in Hunter’s local newspaper, The Hackney Gazette. He parallels the violence, murder, poverty and madness within the pages of the paper with the same themes in the paintings at The National Gallery. He draws on compositions and content from artists like Cranach and Piero di Cosimo to frame stories of strippers on the Hackney Road, people being attacked with swans, and wedding parties turning into brawls. A supposedly innocent cupid in Velasquez’s Rokeby Venus, for example, becomes, in Hunter’s world, a dirty voyeur paying a pound to watch a naked woman.

Rokeby Venus (detail) by Diego Velazquez & Ye Olde Axe (detail) by Tom Hunter.

The images are staged and very filmic, with strong light capturing the characters’ poses, so the work recognizably plays with the original paintings. Part of what makes these photographs so engaging is that they’re a perfect combination of beautiful and ugly. They’re stunningly shot and filled with warm colours, which makes the realisation of the warped subject matter even more intense. Hunter aligns himself far more with a film director than a photojournalist, and the Hell he creates is exaggerated, a version of Hackney created in the media but not the whole picture.

The work is extreme, but then so are many of the paintings in The National Gallery, and Hunter firmly points out that non-contemporary art played with the same age-old themes of human experience and life. Here, then, contemporary art highlights the relevance of old masters.

Francesca Gavin 15 December 05
Tom Hunter – Living In Hell And Other Stories is at The National Gallery, London, until 12 March 06.
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