Americans have probably seen more illustrations by Anita Kunz than by almost any other artist. Her satirical takes on politicians and the world at large, along with her portraits of celebrities, have appeared for decades on the covers and inside the pages of The New Yorker, Time, Rolling Stone and other well-known magazines.
What most Americans probably do not realize is that Kunz is a Toronto-based Canadian. (She has also created covers for such Canadian magazines as Walrus and the late Saturday Night.) But Kunz does more than magazine work: A rare exhibition of her non-commissioned art, titled Iconoclast, has opened at Cube Gallery, continuing until April 24.
Being Canadian gives Kunz a somewhat different take on the U.S. than that of her American counterparts. “Having grown up in Canada makes all the difference,” she says in a phone interview. She credits that, in part, to having matured during the days of Pierre Trudeau and never having felt like a second-class citizen simply because she was a woman. As a result, Kunz is artistically fearless: “I really try to challenge convention.”
That is evident the moment you walk into Cube. There is much more on display than original paintings from past magazine covers. The most prominent wall in the gallery contains six large portraits of women, each representing a different country, including China, India and Israel. But these are not entrants to a Miss World contest. The women are beautiful, but their beauty is defined more by their apparent strength of character rather than by their facial features.
“I really try not to conform to certain beauty standards,” says Kunz.
Kunz’s romance with the unconventional is also evident in a series of etchings for sale all based on the theme of love. There’s a rendition of the famous mythological story of Leda and The Swan. But there are others involving what crudely could be called inter-species love, but are really sensitive, romantic encounters between humans and imagined creatures.
“They’re all meant to be symbolic,” explains Kunz.
The most daring aspects to the Cube show sit on a tabletop. They are the two albums of nude drawings of male politicians, actors, singers and other celebrities. Most of the men present full frontal views, although they obviously did not pose nude for Kunz.
Opening the first page of Book I gives us more than we ever might have imagined of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Nearby is the late Toronto mayor Rob Ford. Other accidental naturists include: Ringo Starr, William Shatner and Woody Allen.
These drawings are more portraiture than caricature, although there is a touch of whimsy that lifts the sketches beyond the ordinary. Also, the genitals tend to be portrayed in a somewhat less than lifelike manner lest anyone take these portrayals too literally.
“It’s a little shocking,” Kunz says of her nude men. “The whole thing is satire.”
Famous paintings of nudes tend to be of women. Life drawing classes tend to have female, rather than male, models. Kunz is simply turning the tables on such practices.
Still, some people will inevitably be annoyed to see well-known men, such as Trudeau, portrayed in all his (imagined) glory. Finding these drawings tasteless should not necessarily be equated with prudishness.
Most of Kunz’s magazine work on display at Cube is stronger than her non-commissioned art. There’s a great painting of the late David Bowie that was originally published in Rolling Stone back in the 1980s. (Kunz forgets the exact year: “There were hundreds of portraits.”) And there are some brilliant original paintings of New Yorker covers, including one from May 9, 2005, marking Mothers’ Day with an illustration of a giant baby labelled The Puppetmaster who is pulling the strings controlling his tiny mother. Another, from July 10, 1995, pays tribute to the Indigenous people who once owned Manhattan with an illustration of a native man with a Mohawk haircut in which the raised hair forms the New York skyline. These are the kinds of iconic images that make Kunz truly an artist to admire.
Kunz’s CV includes portraits of such American presidents as Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and George W. Bush. But she looks askance at the current American political scene. She is not eager to dive in with illustrations, satirical or otherwise. Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump is “scary,” Kunz said. (And that was one of the tamer adjectives she said about him).
“I don’t want to draw him because I don’t want him in my head.”
Has Kunz, The Fearless, met her match? I suspect not. Should Trump become president, he shall surely be lampooned by this Canadian who just happens to be one of America’s favourite artists.
Cube Gallery is located at 1285 Wellington West. The show is up until April 24.