by Vivian Li
In a Word
CONTEMPORARY ART MUSEUM HOUSTON
DECEMBER 16, 2017 – MARCH 25, 2018
Though Brooklyn-based artist Christopher Knowles is renowned for his mathematical, oftentimes compulsive, use of language, his large retrospective show Christopher Knowles: In a Word is a revelation of how equally intense and curious he is throughout the breadth of his artmaking. Currently on view at the Contemporary Art Museum Houston, the retrospective gathers together works that span a career more than four decades long, from his paintings and drawings of the late 1970s to today as well as archival documents and videos of his poetry, performances, and his audio collages.
Owing to his intuitive grasp of materials, it can feel rather pretentious calling what Knowles does artmaking rather than simply “making.” For his paintings, the humble oil marker is his often preferred paintbrush. Without any attempt at modeling, the flat fields of brilliantly vibrant hues accumulate on the unframed canvas to form pictures of rudimentary shapes and meanings. With a fully formed composition already in his mind, Knowles is known to paint one color as it would appear throughout the piece before moving on to the next color.
This build-up of the image as patterns of color also has a certain restlessness where the hand is trying to catch up to the mind’s eye. In Radio City Music Hall at Christmas (1993), for instance, the agitated streakiness of the oil marker lets us imagine Knowles’s hand going back and forth filling in the forms of the building, the windows, and the marquee. Even the prominent text, “Radio City,” running vertically and horizontally across the image, appears treated not as letters but as forms that the artist filled in. Growing up autistic and largely self-taught, Knowles retained the childlike vision of perceiving the world visually, yet with a sophisticated understanding of color and composition.
The exhibition invites a glimpse into how naturally art and life are interwoven in Knowles’s artmaking. Many of the paintings and drawings in the exhibition function not just as artworks but also as personal correspondences, such as his marker painting of a party invitation written on the naked backsides of a family in Fire Island Party Invite (1994), or his typewriter drawing as a birthday greeting to Sarah Knowles, SEK 21st Birthday 1981 (Pyramid Skylight) (1981). The short birthday greeting at the top appears in the standard letter format beginning with “Dear Sarah,” and ending with “Love, Chris,” yet the content’s language celebrating her twenty-first birthday is unusually structured around the repeated term “twenty-one.”
Similar to his use of language, the visual patterns of his typewriter drawings also revolve around a single motif, oftentimes the letter “c,” his first initial. Like the text-based ASCII art when the graphic capabilities of email was still in its infancy, the work’s central square pattern consists of a complex pattern or image made up of only the letter “c” in black and red. Unlike ASCII art on the computer, Knowles constructs his typewriter drawings carefully and meticulously from the fully formed image in his mind. The typewriter does not allow the option for mistakes.
The emphasis on Knowles as an active artistic collaborator adds to the personal intimacy of the show. Although his primary collaboration in the 1970s and 1980s with the theater director and artist Robert Wilson is celebrated as launching both of their careers, In A Word also references Knowles’s fuller orbit of collaborators. While there is a section devoted to the archival material, photographs, and videos from his prolific projects with Wilson, there are also examples of work Knowles made with the director Richard Rutkowski, among others. Rutkowski’s experimental documentary portrait of Knowles, Sunshine Superman (1987), gives invaluable context to the process, nuances, and humor of the artist. In the entrance to the exhibition their black and white film, The Watch Movie (1989), is also playing on a vintage Trinitron. Directed by Rutkowski with text by Knowles, the short movie shows a hapless watch vendor selling on the streets of New York. He suffers a repetitive string of emphatic “no”s from all who pass by him until he finally closes up shop. The predictability and regularity of the rejections make the words less brusque and, like in the repetitive structures and patterns Knowles creates in his other works, remarkably strange.
As a retrospective, In A Word successfully serves as a portrait not only of the artist’s diverse oeuvre but of the mind of Knowles himself. In the end it feels like the only missing element is the artist. This absence is only augmented at the end of the exhibition by a large re-created stage set from his 2012 to 2015 performance piece The Sundance Kid Is Beautiful. Taking up about a quarter of the exhibition space, the set is wallpapered over with pages from the New York Times and occupied by similarly papered over table and folding chair props. Three large paper cones decorated with colorful marker drawings also sit on the stage like oversized dunce caps, while alarm clocks are randomly scattered around the floor. Like this curiously devised set ready to stage any number of potential outcomes, the show offers numerous ways one could enter Christopher Knowles’s boundless art practice and inventive mind. It gives reason to imagine that there is much more to come.
VIVIAN LI is a contributor to the Brooklyn Rail.