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Blank Stares, Seeing Nothing But Reflecting All

By Glenn Dixon
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, October 28, 2004; Page C05

In his 1979 novel "If on a winter's night a traveler," Italo Calvino imagines a couple's nocturnal ritual of reading then lovemaking then dreaming as the brief twining of paths that otherwise remain parallel, close but separate. "But do not wax ironic on this prospect of conjugal harmony," he cautions. "What happier image of a couple could you set against it?"

It's tempting to describe the picture of two lovers pillowed up in bed with their books as universal but, particularly as we enter the post-literate age, it's not hard to see that it is nothing of the sort.

"Seated Couple," one of Hunter's "Works in Colour," is a fertile green. (Brandon Webster -- Conner COntemporary Art)

Already a new kind of togetherness, just as culturally conditioned as the old one, has taken precedence. Its image is captured by Kenny Hunter's "Seated Couple," one of the Scottish sculptor's "Works in Colour" now on view at Conner Contemporary Art.

Slouched against the snug cushions of a loveseat, a young couple stare into the near distance. He sits with legs splayed apart, she with knees together, feet cocked in. They aren't holding hands, but all the way down the length of their arms they are touching. You don't need to be able to see what's on the other side of the room; they are watching television.

It's telling that the single hue the piece has been painted is not the ghostly blue that shivers from a TV screen at night, but a robust Kelly-ish green. Hunter is not waxing ironic on this prospect of conjugal harmony. Green, he observes, is the color of fertility, of growth.

At the same time, he isn't overselling it. Moments of contentment or enlightenment need have little outward manifestation. Penny for your thoughts.

Hunter makes it his business to consider subjects who are considering something. Propped up on his elbows and painted a medium blue conducive to contemplation (not that far removed from IBM blue, frankly), "Reclining Man" is barefoot and quiet as a Buddha. He could be listening to the stereo (Hunter has done a woman in the same pose, and she actually had headphones on). "Standing Woman" is upright, alert and revolutionary red, caught in the mental preamble to action, backpack at her feet. Like her comrades, she is made of painted glass-reinforced plastic and has a faraway look.

The sculptors of antiquity and their Renaissance-era followers also venerated the young. But their primary interest was in the outward form. Their aim was the physical perfection that was the idealization of youth. There was heroism, but it was rooted in muscular strength, in corporeal beauty.

Hunter doesn't go for subjects who are stunners. Too pronounced a leaning toward the handsome or the homely would be a distraction.

Comfortably and modestly dressed, his ordinary youths are physically present in the here and now, but psychologically they project themselves elsewhere.

If you think these sound like the sort of people who'd haunt museums, you'd be right. The centerpiece of the show is a young woman, 6 1/2 feet tall, titled "The Return." When she was on display in Scotland at the Aberdeen Art Gallery (where she was part of an installation called "Gates of the West"), she was positioned opposite a plaster cast of Michelangelo's seated portrait of Lorenzo de Medici.

Her own stance approximately mirrors that of Michelangelo's "David," though the giant-slayer wasn't neatly accessorized with backpack, book and duffle. Here Hunter is making a joke about the way students and tourists -- or all of us, really -- are reshaped in the image of the art we give ourselves over to. And like all good jokes, it goes deeper than its punch line.

Sculptors have long struggled to liberate inner life from stolid bronze or stone. During the French Enlightenment, Jean-Antoine Houdon -- celebrated last year at the National Gallery of Art -- developed a complex technique of rendering liquid, living eyes in the obdurate marble of his portrait busts.

A century later, Auguste Rodin turned cogitation into twisted pose for "The Thinker." That most celebrated sculptural interpretation of the life of the mind is, in fact, rather overdramatized. If it has become a kitsch icon, it is in part because we know there is something ludicrous about the sight of a beefcake philosopher straining away at thought -- "scholar/athlete" indeed.

Hunter's insight is that bravura trickery and contrived posturing are things he can do without. The blankness of countenance that in antiquity marked those who loftily dwelled among the divine can be brought back down to earth. Just as shared belief animated those representations of gods and heroes, our knowledge of contemporary inclinations and habits tells us what Hunter's figures are up to -- even when, from most outward signs, they don't seem to be up to much.

What's on the other side of a stare? Just about anything you can think of.

Kenny Hunter: Works in Colour at Conner Contemporary Art, 1730 Connecticut Ave. NW, Tuesday-Saturday 11 a.m.-6 p.m., 202-588-8750, through Nov. 17.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company