Arts: Pushed off their pedestal

Life-size dogs, Day-Glo politicians: Kenny Hunter's sculptures are neo-classical plastic toys with a satirical bite.
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The Independent Culture
Two big black dogs stand guard in the gallery like sinister sentinels. Modelled in clay, cast in plastic and then lovingly hand-crafted to simulate the seamless perfection of children's toys, they are composite portraits of your everyday post-Modern dog, part rottweiler and part doberman. Life- size and apparently life-threatening, they dare the viewer to come within chomping distance. Like a nightmare version of a child's cornflake-packet gift (the kind which once offered only the relative innocence of an amphibious landing craft), the dogs stand on livid-green plastic plinths, protecting their turf and ready to pounce at any moment. Churchill's Dogs, as they are called, refer to both Winston Churchill's pet name for his depression and Ian McEwan's novel, Black Dogs, but they're also about changing fashions in dogs.

Kenny Hunter, the 36-year-old Scottish sculptor who created them, says: "When I grew up in Edinburgh in the Seventies, dogs used to be Afghan hounds, Yorkshire terriers or lap-dogs doted on by childless couples, but in the Eighties they became guard dogs, reflecting the changing roles of everything from four-wheel drive jeeps to pets. The link to Thatcherism makes them a kind of metaphor for British culture, and calling them Churchill's Dogs ties it in to the history of post-war Britain and its decline from the world stage.

"The sculptures have a look of virtual reality about them which recalls the traditions of classical sculpture. Bernini worked marble until the chisel marks were invisible and the result was seamless, like a plastic toy."

When Hunter exhibited the dogs in Rouken Glen Park in Glasgow, near to his home, real live dogs would come up to sniff their plastic brothers and get confused. Sometimes they would become terrified. This may well be an appropriate response, for while Hunter's sculptures are often made within the context of public art, they deliberately avoid the consoling or affirmative stance of your normal equestrian statue. Growing up in Edinburgh, where the streets are filled with neo- classical monuments to famous personages, Hunter has drunk deep from the well of civic pride and then spat it out again in a multi-layered social critique whose forms might be as accessible and recognisable as the time-honoured big-wig on a horse, but whose intentions are deliberately ambiguous. "The guise of making something bright and colourful about political issues is effective," Hunter says. "The duality makes the work something you can bring your own thoughts to, and the meaning isn't fixed. Statuary has always been associated with putting people on a pedestal, and used by the state in a way that the work of painters isn't. Statuary has to be sanctioned by civic power."

Almost within biting distance of Churchill's Dogs in the gallery is the extraordinary sculpture, Clinton/Yeltsin, a double portrait of Bill and Boris in Day-Glo red reinforced plastic that looks like a child's toy come vividly to life. The figures are modelled from a press photograph of the G7 summit in Tokyo, and it shows the leaders in a laughing clinch above a box-like structure that is part naturalistic podium, part symbolic plinth.

The sculpture relates partly, says Hunter, to Milan Kundera's text, Immortality. "Kundera says that laughter is never portrayed in classical statuary because it's a state of convulsion, without reason. It shows someone without will or thought, and as a result there's a great absence of teeth and gums in Western art. But nowadays the state of laughter is one we like to hide behind, and politicians like to be seen laughing. It's a state of non-thought, a democratic expression, where our eyes disappear. The sculpture is a joke on the great statuary of the Soviets and the Chinese, and it depicts a real event, yet in an unofficial way."

The other sculptures in the exhibition include the original plastic models of a cherub and a skull which were commissioned (in the form of bronze casts) for the Tron Theatre in Glasgow; the heads of Four Children, which (again in bronze), are now at large in a shopping centre in Hamilton, and the deeply troubling presences of the Military Figure, and the Space Ape.

The military figure is partly a response to the valedictory Commando monument at Spean Bridge near Inverness, but Hunter has effectively decommissioned the Balaclava'd figure so that its allegiance, whether freedom-fighter, animal liberationist, or para-military, is concealed. The Space Ape is a chimp in an Apollo-mission suit and helmet which relates partly to Hunter's reading of Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff, and the way that in the space race, American national identity came to depend on the conscripted obedience of dumb animals. The result is eerily disquieting.

Hunter is an admirer of both Bart Simpson and Ian Hamilton Finlay, and an avid collector of children's plastic toys and the gifts contained in Kinder eggs, Hunter has managed to fuse a traditional concern with the classical, figurative form together with an accessible medium and a sharp sense of politics. "I go to car-boot sales, and I buy Kinder eggs, but I don't think I've ever picked up a toy and said I'll make a big one," he says.

"But there's something about the aesthetic, the colour and the form of toys which appeals to me. Classicism is a language that is very elitist, and there's not much connection to everyday life, but Bart Simpson dolls are fantastic creations. Somewhere between this blurring of high and low cultures, people feel insecure."

Kenny Hunter: Work 1995-98, opens tomorrow at the Leeds Metropolitan University Gallery, 0113-283 3130. To 19 December