When Anita Kunz wants inspiration for a painting, she checks the New York Times for stories about religious Darwinism and ideological warfare. Kunz doesn’t need to exorcise any personal ghosts. Her well-sharpened illustrations — ranging from satirical magazine covers to quirky personal portraits — are something of a visuals-only version of Stephen Colbert’s “The Word.” This Thursday, the Art Institute of Boston (AIB) at Lesley University presents “Anita Kunz: Illustrations Published and Unpublished,” a 30-year retrospective of the artist’s work. The 70-piece show includes the New Yorker cover “Lyre” (posing Dubya as Julius Caesar playing a lyre behind the POTUS seal) as well as a portrait of a naked Borat holding a chicken over his crotch.
“I started as an illustrator because I wanted to comment on the world,” says Kunz. “I was always interested in social issues and politics. Somehow I wanted my art to be relevant to those things.”
Kunz’s whimsical portraits are particularly expressive, often featuring a large head paired with a slightly diminutive body and an inevitable snarky twist. Many fall somewhere between the bizarrely photo-shopped Hollywood icons on the Gallery of the Absurd blog and a Neil Gaiman graphic novel.
The Canadian artist did her first magazine-cover illustration for a Toronto business magazine in 1979, but Kunz had her sights set on the New Yorker, currently the only wide-circulation publication that runs free-standing illustrated covers. Since her first effort in 1995, she’s had a dozen covers published in that magazine. Her most recent, “Three Visions” (“Girls Will Be Girls”), which appeared on the July 30 issue, shows a trio of women sitting shoulder to shoulder on the New York subway. The first is completely shrouded in a burka; the second is a young woman in a crop-top, flip-flops, and another garment so short it’s impossible to tell whether it’s shorts or a skirt; the third is a nun wearing coke-bottle glasses with a large gold cross hanging from her neck.
“Based on their clothing,” says Kunz, “none of those women are physically free.” Kunz says she got about 40 letters in response to that painting. “I’ve had lots of reaction that baffles me,” she admits. “I’ve been called anti-woman, a racist, anti-Semitic, anti-American, you name it!”
Kunz is fascinated by the concept of celebrity, though her curiosity is conceptual rather than prurient. “I’m not so interested in the celebrities as I am interested in how we are interested in them,” she says. She’s done a variety of clever pop-culture caricatures, including one of a “Disneyfied” Michael Jackson (complete with an enormous pair of cartoon eyes and one white Mickey Mouse glove decorated with rhinestones) for a Rolling Stone college-issue cover, a crucified Martha Stewart with kitchen-utensil stabbings, Angelina Jolie as Mary Magdalene, and Rosie O’Donnell dressed as a happy 1950s housewife. But Kunz says that she prefers the “serious stuff” to the musical pop-tarts and Hollywood bon-bons — despite the fact that there isn’t as much room for pictorial smack-talking in the press these days.
“The mainstream media has become more conservative and faith-oriented. They don’t want to offend anybody,” Kunz says. “But there are great magazines like the New Yorker and Vanity Fair that will still use illustrations and allow them to be biting.”
“Anita Kunz: Illustrations Published and Unpublished” opens September 6 at the Art Institute of Boston, 700 Beacon Street, Boston. A lecture and reception will be held on September 13 at 4 pm.