Galerie Donald Browne
April 18 – May 30, 2015
The slow paintings Knowles exhibited at Galerie Donald Brown extend his storied risk-taking enterprise into the present. Their rich, sumptuous surfaces make them magnets for the pigment-aroused eye. They yield their secrets slowly, over time.
The primary risk is that viewers unprepared to take the time to study these works would believe them to be just another take on the monochrome. Of course, they harbour an ethic of making which means they are far from shallow. Their surfaces, with their abundant earth tones, are hardly monotonous: built up from hundreds of cloud-seeded layers of yellow, red, and blue diluted acrylic, they seem to have as much stored labour as Ron Martin’s World Paintings or as many staggered skins as Claude Tousignant’s monochromes.
Another risk is that all the talk of Knowles’s much-vaunted ‘discursive’ approach and the medley of his conceptual concerns might distract viewers from the intense looking required here – and the wealth of the atmosphere of the paintings themselves. But Knowles’s Rubbing the Kaki paintings are different in kind. Extant spray marks alleviate the notion that any Modernist purity is devoutly to be sought here. Instead, these integers of process point to something curiously providential: both an implicit, procedural ethic and the epiphany to be had in the physical matter of paint. They resemble the fertile topsoil of painting’s present and are far from a souvenir of its past or a prophecy of its disappearance.
While Knowles downplays any of the old myth-making exercises, heroism, and egotistical bravado associated with critical late-Modernist abstraction, he has created works that function in the lineage of that tradition and effectively transcend it. In a sense, he disabuses us of the notion that in painting you can’t have your cake and eat it, too. He empties out the mythology that infuses the so-called monochrome, and replaces it with a procedural changeling that is at once subversive and demanding.
Knowles acknowledges the importance of procedural protocols in the making of these paintings, which is a way of saying that his intention in painting is to incorporate and celebrate process over and above paint. And yet it is the paint we are left with—and it is positively voluptuous in its mien, whether veiled or limned with textures of darkened light. And it is worth mentioning Knowles’s easy mastery of scale.
There is something deliberately “antithetical” about his work that reminds me of that of the New York-based abstract painter Joseph Marioni. Knowles, like Marioni, is clearly very savvy when it comes to confronting the issue of advancing radical painting in the age of cyberspace and the Internet. And like Marioni, his concerns are not consistent with (or allied to) what latter-day monochromatic painters are attempting to do. He does not paint his canvas or linen surfaces with a single hue, but with several. As the coats settle in, the coming surface rises inexorably towards its final state. The layering of colours adduces a palimpsest that is real and measurable and endlessly seductive, grounded in the materiality of the support and varying accordingly (fine linen saturated with synthetic polymer has a different surface quality than canvas). The distillation of the surface is never the same from painting to painting, but occurs over a period of time, indicating that myriad coats of pigment have been applied, meaning that his paintings can speak in different voices, immanent in colour and sundry textures of light.
Interestingly, and we sense some mischief in it, Knowles has underscored the fecundity of his paintings with some discreetly placed sculptural gestures – consisting of vegetables, splints, and a cigarette –which take the edge off any pretension whatsoever in the proceedings. Did a gallery visitor try to knick that cigarette? Probably.
A warning to the curious: do not come to this or any Knowles’ exhibition with an idea that you can somehow instantly ‘get it’ and just as easily dismiss it. There is more here than meets the mind’s eye. The varied personae of these paintings hatch forth from their surfaces like slow exhalations and are as resonant and voluminous as the clouds in classic Zen Buddhist painting.
James D. Campbell is a writer and curator based in Montreal who contributes regularly to Magenta Magazine among other publications.