. this art, this artist
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Filling in for Cerberus (2016)
about hunter madsen
I am a writer and photographer whose fine-art images and paired texts explore new avenues for beauty in our times.
The conversation about beauty in art is, of course, longstanding and never resolved. I hail from a family of artists steeped in that conversation across diverse media, in a mostly American line tracing back to Samuel F.B. Morse, the 19th-century painter and inventor. (As it happens, Morse brought the daguerreotype from Europe, and mentored Mathew Brady).
This is the first public exposure of my work, completed over the past decade, which makes you among the first to look at it, so fingers crossed.
beauty, unexpectedly. With our modern world awash in conventional prettiness and image glut, it seems to me that the pre-eminent challenge with art these days is not how to make it beautiful - which is relatively easy - but how to make it unexpectedly beautiful, and therefore moving - which is anything but. "Unexpected beauty unsettles," as Peter Schjeldahl once remarked, and things that unsettle break though.
This expansive gallery space is my photo expedition in pursuit of new beauty tracked by alternate coordinates. (My compass settings are described in The Problem of Beauty.)
Defenceless Under the Night (2015)
rough terrain. To spot the unexpected in a picked-over age takes an omniverous eye and a determined hunt across a rough terrain of unlikely contexts, unpromising locations, and provisional aesthetics.
The journey has taken me, in passing, to some dark and heartbreaking places. Much of the imagery here evokes the tension we feel when experiencing beauty alongside suffering, which goes, I think, to the heart of the human condition. Open to getting there by whatever means, my output can resemble a crazy-quilt, the stitchwork of different hands.
a different story. While I admire photographers doing beautiful, straight-ahead shots in the documentary tradition, in my own practice descriptive literalism is usually the first thing to go. Few of my images look the way they were originally shot because, through painterly transformations, they take on intensified meanings and redirected narratives.
(An old farm implement suggests our world tilting off axis. A hunting trophy, bleached with age, looks back in regret. A grocer's tank - where two doomed lobsters contest the flesh of a third, already dead - epitomizes our brutal deformation of the natural world and also, indirectly, the unsparing ethos of our neoliberal age. A winter-wrapped shrub becomes a cloaked deity, fully awakened but hiding Herself shrewdly as calamity unfolds.)
In the images here, what emerges is often alien to the source material and bonded freely to larger conversations about life and death.
ideas & beauty,
show and tell
This is art that aims to connect unexpected beauty with ideas. The work explores how we relate to life's journey, to our gods, to disorder in the natural world, and to the misfitted desires that divert and propel us.
To undertake this union of imagery and ideas, my photo-essays inflect viewers' interpretation of what they're seeing through accompanying titles and texts, which matter to these pieces on a par with the pictures.
Ten-Point Trophy, My Youth (2016)
the winding road. In putting together these pairings, I draw from scattered corners of my braggable but unfocused past. Following a youth pointed toward the arts (for a time I considered making a career as a composer), I undertook training as a social scientist at Dartmouth College and, for my advanced degrees, at Harvard University. For several years I taught liberal philosophy and world politics to Harvard undergrads, then pivoted to pursue a more creative line of work in the advertising industry, first in Manhattan and later in San Francisco.
With the advent of the internet, which riveted me, I rose to become a senior partner at agency giant J. Walter Thompson, was invited to head up JWT’s first worldwide center for excellence in digital media (a position that I designed but ultimately declined), and was awarded the first international Atticus Prize, from global media leviathan WPP, for an essay series on the coming evolution of marketing.
The Gospel According to Four Evangelists (2021)
I subsequently took up roles at Wired, Yahoo, and some other innovative startups in Silicon Valley. Along the way, I published occasional pieces on American life and culture, and penned a monthly column on emerging Web trends for Britain's Management Today. One theme of my art explores how all change, even for the better, entails loss, and how an unsentimental beauty is to be found in our modern-day ruins: used-up and cast-off objects from displaced technologies.
living in sin. Working on the side, I also co-authored a controversial political playbook, After the Ball, which pioneered a public outreach strategy for LGBTQ civil rights in America, back in the Nineties. Long out of print (and now about as awkwardly un-woke as the Mattachine Society), the book remains a bugaboo for the religious Right, and its underlying issues continue to surface, here and there, in my visual art.
the age of weltschmerz. Recent creative collaborations with the composer Robert Kyr have included album and video art for his environmental oratorio, A Time for Life, and program art for The Cloud of Unknowing, Songs of the Soul, and In Praise of Music. As a lifelong environmental activist and the son of a wildlife sculptor, I have made the fraught relationship between mankind and Nature a central subject of my photography, which looks unsparingly, and with grief, at the enslavement, disassembly, and razing of the natural world to suit human tastes and ventures.
I am based near Vancouver, British Columbia, where I live with my German-Canadian partner of many years and our rescued Persian greyhound, named Weltschmerz, from Teheran. These days my time is split between fine art, civic activism, and submitting cartoons for relentless rejection by The New Yorker.
NEXT | the problem of beauty
Maitreya, Buddha of the Future, Takes Cover (2023)
Except where indicated, all text and images at this website are (c) 2023 Hunter Madsen, with all rights reserved. No reproduction or distribution without prior written permission.