The Art of Gonzo: Aspen gallery collects 16 rare works of art by Hunter S. Thompson
‘Gun Shot Art’ at Gonzo Gallery runs into May
What: Hunter S. Thompson, ‘Gun Shot Art’
Where: Gonzo Gallery
When: Through May 15
More info: gonzogallery.com
Hunter S. Thompson made at least 32 signature works of “gun shot art” in the 1990s, a little-known aspect of the late Woody Creek-based writer’s life.
Curator Daniel Joseph Watkins hopes to spread the word of Thompson’s artwork and raise the art world profile of the “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” author, beginning with an exhibition at the Gonzo Gallery in Aspen that collects 16 of the existing Thompson works, for the first time, in one place. The show, spread across the Gonzo’s two current galleries on the 600 block of East Hyman Avenue, opened Thursday.
The displayed pieces are either owned by Watkins or on loan from owners. Most are not for sale. Watkins’ goal was to organize this show and begin making a case in the art world for Thompson as an artist.
“I think that the reason why Hunter hasn’t been appreciated as a visual artist before is because nobody knew that these existed,” Watkins said during a walkthrough of the exhibition this week. “I think these are going to shock people. They’re like Andy Warhols on steroids.”
He is also at work on a book about Thompson and gun shot art, following up his titles on the Aspen-based printmaker and activist Thomas W. Benton and on Thompson’s 1970 campaign for sheriff in Pitkin County. The latter Watkins adapted into the feature-length documentary film “Freak Power: The Ballot or the Bomb,” co-directed by Ajax Axe and released last year.
In the same way that Watkins’ works on the Freak Power campaign have helped popularize the idea of Thompson as a serious political activist, he hopes “Gun Shot Art” will do the same for Thompson’s work as an artist.
“I think this show and the book are going to be the first steps in establishing and legitimizing Hunter as a visual artist,” he said.
Watkins is working toward curating a traveling exhibition of the show to bring more awareness to Thompson’s work as an artist, much as his traveling exhibition about the 1970 sheriff campaign has traveled to museums and galleries around the U.S. (it is currently on view at the Poster House in New York).
He noted how much iconography Thompson developed around himself and his writing in the decades preceding Thompson’s relatively short run of art-making, believed to have only included two gallery shows with the Aspen Art Gallery and David Floria in the ‘90s.
“Hunter had a real sensibility about design, graphics, symbolism — whether it’s the guns or the six-fingered ‘gonzo’ fist,” Watkins said. “He definitely had an eye.”
Thompson made most of the artworks between 1992 and 1995.
“I don’t know why he didn’t make more,” Watkins said, “whether he had artist’s block or what.”
Thompson used exploding targets and airplane liquor bottles affixed to large-format photos or posters for most of the works, shooting them from distance at Owl Farm to create a spatter effect. Their subjects range from Vladimir Lenin to Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner to Elvis Presley and Aspen Mayor John Bennett and, of course, Thompson’s bête noire Richard Nixon. Thompson appeared to use the art form as homage and tribute or castigation.
“It’s interesting, he’s taking aim at his enemies, his editor and his heroes,” Watkins said.
Most were shot on plywood and then framed with a mirror behind them, with the viewer’s reflection staring back at them through the bulletholes.
The collected works in the show also include a gun shot reworking of a movie poster of the 1998 film adaptation of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” as well as a copy of the book. Thompson also shot up pieces by his collaborators, including Ralph Steadman’s “Dr. Gonzo” illustrations from “Fear and Loathing” and Tom Benton’s “Thompson for Sheriff” poster, along with pieces shot and signed by both Thompson and “Naked Lunch” author William S. Burroughs, some at the same time in Kansas.
On some, he created an effect where he took ketchup bottles from the Woody Creek Tavern, filled them with paint and squirted them on a photo, then placed the photo at a distance and shot it. Some he signed with specs including how far the shot was and the type of gun he used.
In what may be a comment on Warhol’s “Triple Elvis” painting, Thompson oozed paint on an Elvis Presley portrait and peppered it strategically with bullet holes. Viewers might also see an allusion to Warhol in a piece made out of three shot-up and paint-spattered portraits of President Richard Nixon. Watkins has taken to calling it a “Trip-Dick.”
“Hunter was making fun of the art world,” Watkins said, “but he was clearly having a lot of fun himself. He’s making his own version of pop art.”
On some Thompson has scrawled aphorisms like “Yesterday’s weirdness is tomorrow’s reason why” and “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”
Students of Aspen history are likely to be amazed by Thompson’s portrait of Mayor John Bennett, shot through the heart with red paint, stamped with the bottom of Thompson’s Converse sneakers and inscribed “Politics is the last refuge of pure swine.” Bennett himself was the work’s previous owner.
The exhibition is the product of roughly a decade of research and collecting for Watkins.
“I’ve been searching for them for 10 years,” Watkins said. “I”ve always kind of been wowed by them.”
He has gone lengths to authenticate the works, gathering provenance and documentation of their creation through art dealers, their owners and from Thompson’s longtime assistant Deborah Fuller, who catalogued details on their creation. For each piece, Watkins has a binder of photos that document Thompson making the work, most of them made on the gun range at Owl Farm, then brought into the home’s kitchen for Thompson to sign.
“The more I learned about it, the more I learned how few there were,” Watkins said.
He has confirmed that Thompson made 32 gun shot art pieces. Along with the 16 in the gallery show, Watkins knows where eight additional ones are and who owns them. Six more Watkins has documentation of but has not located. Two of the artworks, he said, have been destroyed. Works not included here include figures like J. Edgar Hoover, Marilyn Monroe, Ernest Hemingway and Ronald Reagan.
As he’s come to expect of research in Thompson’s gonzo milieu, Watkins found colorful stories and characters in the trail of sales and ownership of the works. One piece in the show, he noted, was owned by former Woody Creek Tavern proprietors Mary and Shep Harris. Thompson used it as payment for his bar bill at the Tavern.
“Gun Shot Art” will run through the Gonzo Gallery’s last day at the current location on May 15. The gallery will move to a new space on Cooper Avenue after that for a summer-long lease. Watkins plans to open that new Gonzo space with an exhibition of works by the young, locally based artist Axel Livingston.
Over the period Watkins has been collecting and cataloging the gun shot art works, his itinerant Gonzo Gallery has moved between several downtown storefronts, most of them on short-term discounted leases from luxury developer Andy Hecht when his buildings have been between tenants. At the two longest-running versions of the gallery — in the old Tom Benton studio in 2013 and at the current address before it was finished in 2016 — Watkins also staged gun shot art shows as a last hurrah before moving out.
The 2013 show was mostly William S. Burroughs works, with some Thompson pieces. The 2016 show exhibited gun shot art by Burroughs, Thompson and Paul Pascarella. Asked about the trend, Watkins quipped: “I guess I like to go out with a bang.”