On ViewSteven Harvey Fine Art Projects
December 10, 2010 – January 15, 2011
Kurt Knobelsdorf is a young artist who recognizes that one way to gain authority—as well as negotiate the minefield planted by those who fervently believe in any of the currently popular, theoretical-cum-marketplace isms—is to paint (the death of painting be damned), while steadfastly refusing to assimilate into the mainstream, particularly in terms of subject matter. This means refusing to show allegiance to exterior forces, such as narrative, whether private or public.
The literary model for this approach is the great encyclopedic writer and one of the founders of OULIPO, Georges Perec (1936–1982), who wrote about the “infraordinary: what happens when nothing happens.” The older painters who have defined a similar approach—and, in doing so, broadened painting’s possibilities—range from Lois Dodd to Thomas Nozkowski. In other words, the categories of representational and abstract are finally beside the point, as anyone with half a mind knows. The fact that you have to find your own way, and that there is no style to follow is both daunting and exhilarating. Knobelsdorf seems not to have been unnerved by the fact that nothing (not even he) is central, which is one reason why I have been a fan of his work since I first saw it in the fall of 2009.
This was Knobelsdorf’s second exhibition in New York. The subjects of the first one were Philadelphia and its surrounding communities, buildings, and façades rendered in a somber palette of earth colors. Recently, he moved from Philadelphia to Miami, and, not surprisingly, the palette has changed. The colors are brighter, with the artist showing a strong predilection for saturated blues. The bigger and to my mind more important change is in the imagery, which seems to be enhanced by the artist’s use of a digital camera, computer, and found material, such as photo albums, school yearbooks, and postcards. Think Albert York meets William Eggleston and his “democratic forest,” and you get a sense of what this artist is up to. Like York, Knobelsdorf can be flatfooted and distinctively awkward, and like Eggleston, he is “at war with the obvious.”
There are 23 paintings, all of them done on paper, which the artist later mounts on panels and sets into simple black frames. Most of the paintings are done on a surface about the size of a standard sheet of typing paper, which means he can work outside without attracting much attention. Contrary to what you might expect, the paintings are not sketchy but full of convincing detail rendered out of abstract marks. Clearly, they have been worked on more than once, and the surfaces are built up, though not in any uniform manner. The paint ranges from interlocking planar slabs to linear tracery, with both often in the same painting. For Knobelsdorf the struggle is between the general and the specific. At his best, the paintings are both. Although he works far smaller than either John Dubrow or Sangram Majumdar, this is something he shares with them. The one misstep he sometimes makes is when he adds details, such as eyes, nostrils, and lips, to a small, figure, turning it into a caricature, but this a technical problem more than anything else.
Although the paintings are based on observation, the light is not naturalistic, but juiced up—a thick surface can smolder or glow, even in the evening, when a woman in a nightgown, standing on a couch in her living room, stares into space and sees the air, or when a surveillance camera records an aerial view of a person entering a convenience store. This is the emotional core of Knobelsdorf’s work: no matter who we are, some part of us remains anonymous and unfathomable, both to others and ourselves. The woman walking on the other side of the street, past a dead tree on a sunny day, may stir something up in us, but we are not sure why. The loneliness that haunts the paintings is not personal but collective and, more disturbingly, it feels unavoidable.
Knobelsdorf has raised genre painting to another level, which is what makes his work riveting. He and Merlin James can paint an undistinguished, prefabricated house and make it feel like the calm eye of a horrific storm.