The “problem” with all gallery exhibits is they have short start and finish dates, which is exactly how the dealers get the art lovers to buy the art they love before it disappears into the mist or to another gallery out of reach. The only “problem” with the Philippe Labaune Gallery in New York City is that Wit & Wisdom, an exhibition of paintings by Canadian artist Anita Kunz, is only open through March 7.
That does not allow too much of a space-time continuum window to see Kunz’s narrative, satiric and comic paintings in her premiere art gallery show outside the ghetto of design and illustration. The Philippe Labaune Gallery (534 W. 24th Street) is the first contemporary art gallery in the United States specializing in “high-end” narrative art, comics and illustration.
On view in Wit & Wisdom is a series of original paintings from Kunz’s Another History of Art, presented alongside covers of The New Yorker. “Contemporary aesthetics are juxtaposed onto art from the past through the point of view of ‘a secular female,'” state a gallery text, “breathing new life into works by old masters such as Rubens, da Vinci, Hockney and Magritte, as if painted by women of the modern era.”
After a packed opening on Feb. 9 where fellow artists, art directors and patrons joined to celebrate Kunz’s breakthrough, I asked her to tell us how she felt about the event as well as the com-mix of art forms that she’s excelled at for decades.
This is your first painting exhibition in New York City at Philippe Labaune Gallery. How does it feel to have broken down the barrier between wall art and printed art?
Very honored! I was thrilled when Philippe called and offered me a show. I always thought that the barriers between the disciplines are manufactured, and I never understood why narrative art is considered less valid than “fine” art. In Europe there are far fewer issues with artists doing a variety of things, and I always thought it was strange that there is such a hierarchy of what is supposedly important and what isn’t in the American art scene.
So, you don’t see art in those binary terms?
I’ve always thought that the borders are fluid and porous. I love to see what other artistic people are doing, especially when they’re experimenting in multiple creative areas.
How did you find the Philippe Labaune Gallery?
I have Barbara Nessim to thank for that. She hosted a studio visit last fall with a few artist friends, and in our discussions, Philippe Labaune’s name came up. Everyone was excited that there is now a gallery in Chelsea that appreciates and elevates narrative art, illustration and comics. The following day we happened upon the gallery and I spoke to Assibi Ali the director. He took my name, I sent a few samples of my work and was astonished when Philippe actually called! I’ve had some bad experiences with galleries (I’m sure other artists can relate) and it seems that many gallery owners are just plain mean. I have no idea why. I even remember having conversations with Marshall Arisman about it. This experience with Philippe has been amazing and I couldn’t be happier.
The exhibition is decidedly curated so that your work dominates the rooms. Yet only comparatively few of your images are on display. How was that decided?
I have an extensive archive, so I put forward some suggestions. But Philippe ultimately curated the show. I’m happy with the work he chose. Sometimes I’m just too close to my own work and I can’t figure out which paintings are better! He wanted New Yorker covers because of the gallery aesthetic, and he also wanted some larger scale works so I think it all works together well.
There are indeed images that were done as illustrations. How do you distinguish the hierarchy between the arts, or doesn’t it matter?
At this point in my career, I don’t really think it’s for me to decide what is more important, although I do have my opinions! I became an illustrator because I needed to make a living and being a gallery artist wasn’t even an option. I have always been a working artist, and I think I have a working-class work ethic. Plus, I always thought that visual story-telling is important! We humans are story tellers. Also, I feel so privileged to have worked with great print art directors who gave me a lot of creative freedom and never dictated content. So, I never considered illustration to be a lesser art form in any way.
Each of your pictures triggers something in my psyche, but “The Daughter of Man”, the riff on Magritte, has a special resonance. What does your work trigger in you?
You know, that’s really hard for me to say. As an illustrator, I work as more of a collaborator and I make work that has to perform a function for a client. And as an “artist” when I sit in my studio and make my own work without any direction, I allow myself a lot more freedom and I never know where the paintings are going to end up because I don’t do sketches. I allow myself to wander a bit more. It’s a more intuitive and emotional process. I suppose I’m influenced by the culture but not always consciously. For example, the paintings in the book that I made during the Trump presidency are weirder and crazier. I think I internalized that nothing around me was making sense, and the political insanity was somehow reflected in my work.
What would you like to be the outcome of this exhibition?
Well, it’s always nice to see the paintings just as I painted them after working in print for decades. I really think the gallery will do well because in my view it’s an important gallery for our time, and I’m very happy to be part of it. I’d love for more people to ultimately consider published and narrative work as the sophisticated art form that I believe it is.