I’m not sure what I expected when Hunter Payne first told me, last August — when I interviewed the 21-year-old for CL’s roundup of notable Tampa Bay artists under 25 — that he planned to make a trip to the Florida Keys to draw underwater. Painstaking studies of tropical fish? Tender renderings of coral reefs?
Having some inkling of Payne’s style, which he described to me then as “contemporary fuckhouse,” I don’t suppose I expected something so prosaic. Still, when an exhibition of 200 drawings he made during his October 2011 trip opened two weeks ago at the [email protected], I was surprised by the results.
Call them telegraphic pictograms from a just-post-adolescent Id.
It helps to know that Payne made the drawings under the intense pressure of having screwed up Day 1 of his three-day trip. Then a student in USF St. Pete’s graphic design program, Payne funded the junket by raising $1,300 in a whirlwind three-and-a-half days on Kickstarter.com after the [email protected] promised him a slot for his first solo exhibition — a double triumph. But when he got to the Keys with buddy Reuben Pressman, who documented their shenanigans using a Go-Pro miniature video camera, his project dreams took a hit.
For starters, on Day 1 a group of party girls aboard the same chartered snorkel boat began puking their guts out overboard, Payne says. (This explains the drawings — otherwise baffling — that allude to his experience, or fear of, swimming in someone else’s vomit.) Amidst this chaos, Payne lost some of his supplies, made only a few drawings and spent the evening working on his final projects for school in a hotel parking lot. So on Day 2 Payne went balls out into the crystal blue (and, this time, puke-free) waters of the Florida Keys. With Pressman videoing — the resulting footage is condensed into a 13-minute documentary on view in the show — he made 200 drawings underwater in about four hours, each scrawled with a grease pencil on pieces of tissue paper the size of a snapshot and later (back on dry land) watercolored by hand.
Those Day 2 drawings comprise Let’s Draw Underwater. Like so much about Payne — his perpetually mussed blond mullet, his propensity for dropping the f-bomb mid-sentence — the images are uncensored testimonials of a frenetic inner world. To the extent that they engage the experience of being underwater, they do so through the filter of his quick-drawing free association. One drawing consists of the words “Nobody knows I’m pissing right now” scribbled in black grease pencil and subsequently adorned with a yellow watercolor streak. (Peeing in the ocean is a recurring theme.) A few pay homage to sports figures — e.g., John Elway’s name inscribed in a heart — while some muse about food — a brown ring titled “hot underwater donut,” a floating pair of hamburger buns encasing a pink patty that bears more resemblance to a vulva than a burger.
Granted, some of the drawings take being underwater as their subject in more predictable ways. (Cartoonish dolphins and jellyfish, dubbed “poisonous pillowcases,” appear many times.) But what’s startling is how many of the text-images — extruded from Payne’s mind under intense pressure — function like the sort of spontaneous, revealing comments a person makes halfway into a therapy session. Deeply into his underwater flow, Payne makes a drawing about being told he would never amount to anything after his arrest for making graffiti at age 16. Another picture shows (what looks to me like) a swordfish with its nose covered in shit; the caption reads, “I made this decision.” You could call Payne’s drawings juvenile, sloppy and dumb, and you wouldn’t be wrong — but they’re also engrossing, endearing and occasionally really fucking courageous.
That brings me to a couple of conclusions I came to after visiting Payne’s exhibit and interviewing him again. For one thing, I’m not sure putting a frame around Payne’s drawings is the right way to delineate what his art is. The more I consider his work — and this may be obvious to anyone who has met Payne — the more I think it consists of simply… being Hunter Payne (e.g., dreaming up the idea of drawing underwater in the Florida Keys, making a wacky video to solicit Kickstarter donations, documenting the project’s meltdown and comeback, painting the [email protected]’s interior blue and hanging 200 drawings from fishing line). How Payne accomplishes what he sets his mind to is so infused with his distinctive aesthetic that what he does is at least as much performance as object.
Secondly, with Let’s Draw Underwater Payne has firmed up his status as a, and probably the, visual artist under 25 to watch in Tampa Bay. Keep your eyes peeled for an exhibit he’s organizing at the [email protected] in March, which will feature animations and other web-based art by other artists, along with work by Payne.
“If you have a talent, you need to share it,” Payne says. “My grandma fuckin’ beat that into my head.”