Christopher Knowles in Two Acts
October 16, 2021 through January 8, 2022
By JONATHAN GOODMAN, October 2021
Born in 1959, artist and poet Christopher Knowles first came into the public eye when set designer Robert Wilson used his writing in Philip Glass’s opera Einstein on the Beach in 1976. Knowles is regularly described as autistic or brain damaged, and his poetry and art have a naive quality and a rough facture. In the show at Bridget Donahue, Knowles exhibited lists of top ten singles in the late 1960s and simple drawings that often repeat similar images--rows of heads, for example. Even though the work is unusually naive, the debate concerning Knowles’s mental proficiency cannot be solved by our viewing of his art; its outsider status is accepted as part of today’s mainstream expression. For example, as one walks into the second-floor gallery, the first image faced is a simple red balloon, tied at the bottom. The rounded space of the balloon is filled with individual strokes, but otherwise the image is entirely itself--no embellishments, no complications. A Red Balloon was made in 1990, with a paint marker--one can see bits of paper in between the numerous strokes making up the picture, adding to the roughness of what we see.
Two other drawings, or lists, of ranked pop music singles, also from 1990 memorialize such classic songs as The Rascals “A Beautiful Morning” and Archie Bell and the Drells’ “Tighten Up.” No more than a simple listing of the most popular music of 1969, the list, made more than twenty years after the songs had come into play, has no real visual orientation. Instead, it is a relic of the past. Perhaps it is an attempt at keeping the popular music of that particular period alive. In Knowles’s The Galasso Family (Michael, Liz, and Catherine) (1990-91), we see three a figures: to the left, a woman in a yellow dress with brown hair; in the middle, a smaller figure with shoulder length dark brown hair wearing a print shirt; and to the right, a large man with black hair in a red Hawaiian shirt. Behind them is a house constructed with flat planks of white wood; a window, divided into black panes, is found directly behind the family. In this typical family portrait arranged much like a pose for a photograph, the parents and daughter radiate happiness and good will. We cannot say that they have been rendered with high skill. Instead, the image is a matter of warmth and the charm of familial togetherness--the emotion of the drawing comes first.
Pink Shapes (1991) is a simple group of rough-edged, mostly round pink forms in rows seven across and five down. They are no more than what they seem to be: inchoate blobs the color of bubble gum. The rows, which are the shapes’ organizing principle, are simple in the extreme. Inevitably, when considering this work and those drawings in the rest of the show, the audience is faced with a predicament: how to make sense of the simplicity of intellectual structure by an artist who may be brain-damaged. Surely, these are charming drawings, but it is hard to fit them securely into the very sophisticated mainstream of the New York art world. Yet this actually means little in a milieu in which outsider art--if that is in fact the best description of Knowles’s efforts--has been taken seriously for at least a generation.
In fact, we have been trained now not only to see but to enthusiastically accept the work of artists whose paintings and sculpture and performance art live on the margins. So it doesn’t make sense to see the show in a lesser light, its idiosyncrasies are a matter of naive distinction rather than faint praise. In fact, we need to look at this work as a viable example from a time when matters like technical skill have receded into the background. Knowles is one of those artists whose life or condition cannot be separated from the things he does. Knowles’s poems affect us similarly; they are filled with repetition, one-word lines, and have been linked to minimalism. As happens with the poetry, his visual work makes a virtue of the dictum “Less is more,” affording us a glimpse of basic, fundamental attitudes toward art. In art today, our sympathies seem to lie mostly with direct expression, often allied to abstraction--qualities Knowles possesses in good measure. No matter how straightforward and transparent his work may be, we can see that its uncomplicated directness possesses novelty, even innovation, resulting in originality. WM
Jonathan Goodman is a writer in New York who has written for Artcritical, Artery and the Brooklyn Rail among other publications.
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