For a visual artist, getting a gallery show is usually the end goal after months or years of effort, but for the last decade, painter James B. Hunt has been giving the middle finger to art venues. He prefers to set up his own hidden exhibits in not-so-public places, concealing his artwork across Phoenix, Arizona, and surrounding cities. Hunt stows away detailed line drawings and watercolors of mutants, burn victims, and esoteric religious icons in back alleys, behind dumpsters, and down storm drains. Then, he posts clues online—whoever finds his garish, twisted works can freely take them home.
A lot of work goes into these malformed images, so I asked why Hunt just discards them in the street. He said he feels they’re not given away but earned. More importantly, he told me that there are really two cities in this sprawling desert metropolis, one visible and one hidden. Stashing his works is what makes him feel a part of the underground.
There's what you see on the evening news—all the over-hyped art events funded by downtown arts commissions, occasionally throwing artists a bone by convincing them to build hideous sculptures for the light-rail station—and "then,” Hunt told me, “there's the secret Phoenix.”
“This is the Phoenix built by artists and musicians who've been burned by our city enough times to know that no good can come of the 'progress' the city council has in store for us,” he continued. “We watched as they turned Mill Avenue—which was once the closest thing we had to a cultural jewel—into a nightmarish coagulation of chain restaurants and douchebag bars. We stood by as they forced us out of our legitimately affordable Tempe homes with the intention of tearing them down in favor of ‘modern, affordable loft spaces for the metropolitan artist’ that no local artist we knew of could afford. This was part of the reason we all began fleeing Tempe for Phoenix, and now it's beginning to happen [again].”
Hunt, who refused to be photographed, has never let anyone join him when hiding his art, but eventually he relented and let me tag along for one of his latest searches, 23 Birds for Tempe. The “show” fell on February 23, a date that holds mystical meaning for the artist. Birds are also a strange choice for Hunt, as he told me in no uncertain terms that he “fucking hates them.” But he does like watching them. “They're apocalyptic,” he said as we cruised down Apache Boulevard. “Whenever a bird shows up in the Bible or any holy document, it's not a good sign. Unless they're feeding Elijah, which is fucking insane, it's not a good sign. I like that.”
One of Hunt's biggest projects from last year was the Ova Concilium Scroll, a bunch of sketches and drawings that he taped, stapled, and glued together until it reached almost 95 feet. It wouldn’t even fit in a gallery if he tried, so instead he dismantled it and hid the artwork. Hunt also likes to scavenge, going out to the desert to collect things like rocks, rusty metal objects, and the bones of small animals.
“There's something about a found object that means more to me than something you buy. It feels earned,” Hunt explained. “I like the idea of somebody coming across a painting during an evening walk. I also like that it may never be found. Secret, hidden worlds are much more interesting to me than the ones that are out in the open for all to see… There's nothing quite like watching swarms of people turn over rocks and stick their heads down storm drains in hopes of finding something I made. It means more to me than if somebody were to just stare uninterested at one of my paintings on a wall for five minutes and move on to the next one. With the art hunts, the people participating become a part of the project.”
Because Hunt doesn’t have a driver’s license, for “moral reasons,” he rides his bike everywhere. This is how he discovers these hidden worlds, and as we cruised around Tempe squirreling away paintings, he pointed out the many bizarre, unmapped landmarks he’s all too familiar with.
We stopped behind a paramilitary complex not far from the train tracks—complete with camo netting, barbed wire, and old military ambulances. While Hunt buried a painting in the tall grass, a homeless dude stopped to talk to himself and stare at the structure before wandering away.
Later, Hunt helped me find an area of Phoenix just off of 32nd Street and Thomas Avenue where wild peacocks, guinea hens, and chickens have roamed free for decades after a nearby farm was flattened into suburbs. Some neighbors wanted the birds gone, but the city told the suburbanites to go fuck themselves—the birds were there first.
It’s scenes like this that make up the "secret Phoenix" Hunt would rather be a part of. Altogether, Hunt and I hid 23 watercolors, small canvases, and medium-size boards in bushes, on backstreets, and beside train tracks. A few hours after Hunt posted clues online to the paintings’ whereabouts, about 300 people would go out on a scavenger hunt.
But not everyone is a fan of Hunt and what he does. For the last seven years, the painter has had a kind of nemesis, an elusive man named David Syndrome, who apparently seeks out Hunt's work so he can throw it away. I spoke to David via email, and he insisted on referring to himself in the third person, describing his anti-art campaign as “a spiritual and aesthetic crusade against the psychic tyranny of the man-made image controlled by society's elite.”
“James B. Hunt is one cog in a gigantic mechanism of control David Syndrome wishes to free mankind from,” he said in the email. “The images Mr. Hunt and other agents distribute aren't destroyed as much as they are cleansed. Remains are kept until they have been deemed innocuous and no possibility of the cabal's influence can hurt the general population. It's important that civic-minded people take action in a totalitarian regime to reclaim our reality for future generations. I implore any and all people working on the side of goodness to do what needs to be done.”
David Syndrome is a kind of symbol of the darker side of the secret Phoenix, but even that opposing force won't stop Hunt from doing all he can to hold onto what's left of the city's eccentric soul. I was left with his stinging refrain: "There's a lesson we keep learning, which is that if you're an artist, this city is not your friend."
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