Master of Fine Arts, Painting
Brigham Young University


Culture, Allegory, and Ethnicity in Contemporary Representational Art

The human figure has long provided a powerful visual device for allegorical representations of the values we share. From paintings, sculptures, coins and medals; to illustrations in magazines, posters and books; to the super-men and wonder-women of comic book films and video games, the human figure has borne the principal visual burden of portraying both our highest hopes and our darkest fears.

How do we as contemporary artists represent our beliefs and values through figurative allegories and visual narrative systems today? For example, how might we portray a precious ideal like liberty? Does Lady Liberty, or the goddess Libertas, still retain the richness of symbology from her classical roots in Western culture, or has our society all but lost touch with her original meaning?

What about the Jeffersonian trifecta of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness? What meaningful visual metaphors might we use to embody these ideals today? Can the human figure still effectively convey such, or is there something more relevant to our lives? What do these concepts mean to us today? Do we still believe in them as the framers of our republic did?

We recognize that Modernism happened, bringing visible changes to our art forms and ways of life. But has essential human nature changed? Do modern people prefer Modern art and its cultural progeny (Postmodernism, etc.) because we are somehow fundamentally different from people of the past? Do we think we possess, as a result of a more enlightened education, a cultural taste superior to that of our ancestors? If so, how did we contract such chronological snobbery?

What about the diversity inherent in our unity—the ideal of e pluribus unum? Does the representation of ethnic minorities in our national artistic productions like coins, medals, and currency, constitute a substantive marker of social progress? Or are these merely superficial gestures? Can diversity even exist in a work of art where only one figure is portrayed, as on the obverse side of a coin or medal? Or does diversity emerge only where multiple figures are depicted, as in a narrative painting or a series of portraits?

Can we as figurative artists attempt to speak authentically for, or about, other people and cultures in our work? Or are there insurmountable problems with our artistic attempts to represent people of different racial, ethnic, or sociological backgrounds? What does the history of Western art suggest?

Similarly, regarding cultural appropriation, what principles should guide us in seeking and incorporating creative inspiration from outside our own traditions? Are there any reasonable limits to cultural influence and adaptation in our artistic forms? Or does the attempt to define such rules contradict principles of free speech?

In such a culturally complex society—one that seems increasingly suffused with belief systems and forces that denigrate or even suppress art forms based in traditional Western aesthetics—how will the representation of the human figure survive in the long run? Will classical liberal ideals endure by means of the work we create? How can we play a positive role in preserving our values and inspiring a healthy, vibrant culture through the work we create?

I will seek to address these questions from my own perspective as a figurative painter, narrative illustrator, and designer of American coins and medals.


About Justin

Justin Kunz is an artist, educator, and designer of American coins and medals. An Assistant Professor in the Department of Design at Brigham Young University, Kunz’s paintings have been included in exhibitions throughout the United States and received recognitions including a ‘Best Associate Award of Excellence’ in the Oil Painters of America 26th National Juried Exhibition, a Certificate of Excellence in the Portrait Society of America‘s International Portrait Competition, a Visitor’s Choice Award in the LDS Church History Museum‘s International Art Competition, and a Director’s Award at the Springville Museum of Art Spring Salon.

As a Master Designer in the United States Mint Artistic Infusion Program, his numismatic design credits include the 2017 American Liberty 225th Anniversary Gold Coin, 2016 American Liberty Silver Medal, St. Regis Mohawk Tribe Code Talkers Congressional Gold Medal, 2016 America the Beautiful Shawnee National Forest Quarter, 2015 American Liberty High Relief Gold Coin, Rosebud Sioux Tribe Congressional Gold Medal, 2014 Civil Rights Act of 1964 Commemorative Silver Dollar, 2009 Abraham Lincoln Commemorative Silver Dollar and the 2008 Andrew Jackson’s Liberty First Spouse Gold Coin.

Kunz holds a Master of Fine Arts degree in Painting from Laguna College of Art and Design, and a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Illustration from Brigham Young University, having studied with several prominent artists including Jeremy Lipking, Joseph Todorovich, John Nava, Jon Swihart, Robert T. Barrett, and William Whitaker. His work is represented by Waterhouse Gallery in Santa Barbara, California, Deseret Book Fine Art Gallery in Salt Lake City, Utah, and Altus Fine Art in American Fork, Utah. Justin lives with his wife, Heidi, and their four children in the foothills of Utah’s Wasatch Mountains.