Local artist James B. Hunt has found a novel way of showing his peculiar pieces of art – first by hiding them and then letting fans seek them out as free treasures..
Under a giant balloon projection of a beehive, orchestrated with loud, synthesized buzzes from thousands of actual bees — one of the most attention-drawing outdoor installations on this November First Friday art walk in downtown Phoenix — James B. Hunt surveys his latest showing of paintings at the bustling Fireh
ouse Gallery and points to a wide 3’ x 2’ piece dominating one of the walls.
Titled “THNTH,” but labeled with an impossibly long series of letters that looks more like an Ottendorf cipher than a title placard, the painting is a moody blue piece that, from a distance, looks like an ancient, alien-looking face surrounded by vapor trails of its own multiple ghosts — popular images in Hunt’s work. With their bubbling, mutating skin and hollow eyes, even his pink bunny rabbit, in “BNNY,” looks like something that could have burst through the chest of one of Ellen Ripley’s crewmembers in Alien.
But upon closer inspection, “THNTH,” like many of Hunt’s paintings, reveals countless connected smaller images: another face peering around a corner; a dolphin, perhaps; assorted Masonic symbols and, Hunt insists, scattered among the black-eyed ghosts, several images of “inverted children” — a peculiar term the East Valley artist might well be applying to the ghosts themselves.
“There are a number of connected images there that come together and make a bigger image, then a bigger image, then a bigger image,” says Hunt, who subscribes to the “automatic drawing” aesthetic of the idiosyncratic late English surrealist Austin Osman Spare and the intricate detailing of Ivan Albright. “I like to encode hidden images in the painting — the images on this one number in the thousands. And the images all tie together to tell sort of a pictorial story. Among other things, this one is a map of the Greater Phoenix area.”
He’s not joking. While Hunt’s vapor-trailing ghostyhead looks nothing like any road map Rand McNally would publish, he insists that if one insightfully follows all the hidden symbols in the painting, they’ll find a unique reward: a second complete show of Hunt’s work tonight, where all the paintings are free to whoever finds them.
The hide-and-seek bit is Hunt’s trademark. Between staging shows at hip galleries like Wet Paint, the Brickhouse, Alwun House and the Firehouse’s previous incarnation, Thought Crime Gallery, Hunt has become known for hiding paintings around town and leaving clues on his webpage, tempeart.com, for his fans to follow. Whatever they find is theirs to keep.
But this is the first time Hunt has hidden an entire second exhibit simultaneously with his First Friday show, and there is what he modestly calls “a wealth — or at least a wall” of art to be had. He’s worried about two things, he says. One, that all the art he set up at that second location may already be gone, “Some of the neighbors there were watching me,” he says, and — worse — that no one will bother to look for it at all.
“I sometimes wonder if this is all self-gratification,” Hunt says of all the hidden symbolism in his paintings. “I don’t really expect anybody to care enough to decode it.”
As it turns out, he needn’t worry about the latter. While Hunt continues talking about the hidden symbols in his largest painting, two young women standing nearby noticeably eavesdrop on his every word. Finally, the two give up any pretenses of staging their own conversation and begin cocking their ears like extras in a 1980s E. F. Hutton commercial.
Taking note, Hunt suddenly falls silent, and the ladies slowly turn their heads.
“Go on,” one of them says, and the three begin laughing together.
Tonissa Saul and Laura Davis, it turns out, are Hunt fans who have come to the Firehouse tonight expressly to unlock the location of the hidden paintings. Though neither has met him in person before tonight, they each became familiar with his art through his Facebook page where Hunt has been promoting tonight’s event for weeks. “He friend-requested me!” Saul gushes.
“We’ve been looking forward to this for a while,” says Saul, who professes to already be the proud owner of one of Hunt’s earlier hidden paintings. “Usually, he doesn’t make you decipher a code. Usually he just says to look between this street and that street, and then you go look for it. But this time, it’s hard! We were doing the whole National Treasure thing, looking for all the hidden numbers and letters. But we weren’t making much progress.”
Hunt admits he has been making his treasure hunts more and more challenging since starting the practice several years ago on a camping trip around Payson.
“I’m into rock hounding — looking for rocks,” says the Lubbock, Texas transplant, whose family moved to Arizona when he was young and who quickly fell in love with the desert. “And one day I was out on a trail and I thought, ‘That would be a nice place to hide a painting.’ To my knowledge, it’s still there.”
After hiding a second painting in Tempe, Hunt felt compelled to post some clues as to its whereabouts on his webpage. “It created a little scavenger hunt. And it’s grown over the years. Nothing huge — probably never will be. But it’s grown to include enough people to keep me interested in doing it.”
Hunt sees the experiment as a progression from social media friend-following. “You shouldn’t feel it necessary to tell every human being you’ve met since grade school that you’re tired or hungry,” he writes on his webpage, lampooning the Twitter-addicted. In an effort to launch more meaningful exchanges, Hunt began leaving what he calls “The Ghost Box” around town: a box filled with art and trinkets for the taking, with a compartment below for the finder to leave something — a letter, a drawing — in return.
So far he’s been happy just getting an email back from the finders. “Usually within two or three hours after my hiding something, somebody will email me and say, ‘Hey, I found it!’ I absolutely love it when that happens.”
Oddly, for someone who encourages human interaction, Hunt prefers keeping an almost invisible profile. He doesn’t like having his picture taken, for example, and tends to hide under hats and anonymous clothing in public. “There are people who know what I look like now and follow me around,” he explains. “Not because they’re into me, but because they know they’ll get free art.”
Nevertheless, he warms up to Tonissa and Laura, whom he recognizes from his social media links. “See? I know my Facebook friends!” he tells them. Eventually, Hunt talks at such length with the ladies that he unguardedly pieces together for them the main clue to tonight’s mystery: that the showing is hidden at a favorite location in Tempe.
“I don’t want to tell you any more,” he exclaims, while Saul and Davis giggle like schoolgirls holding a cheat sheet for a scavenger hunt. “I’ve already said way too much!”
As the two potentially paying customers hurry out the door of the Firehouse en route to a spot in downtown Tempe where they’re sure they’ll find some of Hunt’s paintings for free, the artist calls after them.
“I love you guys for caring,” he says sheepishly.
Born to Hide
In a way, James B. Hunt was born to play the role of the hide-and-seek troop leader. For starters, there’s the family name, which might predestine someone into symbolism to seek out elusive finds.
“I don’t know of many ‘hunters’ in my family tree,” Hunt says. “But there does seem to be an inherent desire in me to both hide things in secret places and also to go looking for them.”
Then there’s his birth date: June 17, 1972. The date of the final Watergate burglary, a famous treasure hunt of sorts co-commanded by another man who happened to have the last name Hunt. Significant?
“Probably not, but certainly interesting,” he says. “I do hide multiple paintings on my birthday every year, actually.”
Truth be told, Hunt is more influenced by the cryptic numerology of the late 16th century Freemasons, a fraternal organization heavily into the architectural symbolism of the medieval stonemason: lots of squares and compasses, along with mystical eyes and triangles.
“It helps to know the Freemason alphabet in decoding these paintings,” he reveals. Additionally, it helps to learn the subtle differences in the creatures Hunt paints, most of which appear to be either ghosts or aliens, two admitted fascinations.
“This might sound silly, but I like to imagine that there’s a sort of ‘chain of command’ with the characters I paint,” Hunt says. “There are certain types of characters that mean certain things, and I usually only hide those in certain places. The triangular-eyed, six-armed characters, for example, usually indicate that there is a secret contained within that particular piece, and that further examination is necessary.”
Of course, Hunt’s dark, quirky images can also be enjoyed without any knowledge of symbolism — or even fine art.
“I don’t do the whole kind of arty thing, but I like his stuff,” says Davis, who works as a lighting technician for concerts and corporate events. “It’s interesting, and fun. I haven’t found one of his paintings yet myself. That’s why I’m so excited about tonight!”
In the end, it will be Davis and Saul who find and take away half of the paintings at the mystery location, which turns out to be near the site of a now torn-down farmhouse where Hunt and some other artists used to live. The other half is taken by someone who’s yet to email Hunt of their find.
The giveaway amounts to the equivalent of a very large free download for the two professed Hunt fans. But ultimately, the same strategy that worked for Radiohead may also work in the artist’s favor. Those who find one of Hunt’s six-armed creatures often wind up at his next gallery showing, looking to purchase it a companion.
“I was really hoping one of the paintings he had at the Firehouse would have been one of the hidden pieces,” Davis says. “I really wanted that particular one.
“But,” she adds, with a shrug, “maybe I’ll buy it.”