"The Best Art In The World"
The Watermill Center
By BRIAN BLOCK March, 2023
At the entry of this retrospective survey, the exhibition's title graphics on the wall: “Christopher Knowles/Stand” present a curious doubling. Directly below the printed title, the artist has re-written it freehand in marker at 1:1 scale. While the printed text presents as true, in repetition the handwritten version seems infused with subjective wonderment and doubt. By juxtaposing the mechanical with the personal mark of the hand, curator Noah Khoshbin has crafted a telling entry into Knowles’ deceptively simple forms of ‘drawing from life’ and how these forms reveal surprising and curious gaps between appearance and experience, and between knowing and understanding.
Due to complications at birth, Christopher Knowles was born with a condition of cognitive variance similar to savant autism, and it is Knowles’ resulting oblique relationship to language and linguistic perception which is at the center of much of his creative activity. “Christopher sees language for what it is, a game, a proposal, bountiful and limited to what it is - words as the thing itself” Hilton Als has observed. Indeed, as Knowles explores and reveals much about our relationships to language across the five decades of work presented here.
“Christopher Knowles/Stand” the largest survey of Knowles’s work to date features over one hundred and fifty works across ten rooms, including selections of paintings, drawings, typings, sculpture, and sound works. Having known Knowles for over twenty years Khoshbin’s curation illuminates rich understandings of Knowles’s practice gleaned from years of collaboration and first hand knowledge of the artist’s work. Overall, the survey has the knowing sense of an artist’s view upon the work of an artist’s artist.
Khoshbin begins with two complementary early works probing self perception and language. In the audio poem “This is Chris” from 1973 we hear:
“Is this Chris?
Chris his is,
This is Chris,
This Chris his,
This his is,
Chris this his is...”
The poem probes our own understandings: What is this thing we call a personal name? How is one shaped by a name? What happens when we stare into the arbitrary operation of naming? Knowles’s poem offers a playful exploration of these questions with one of our most foundational linguistic relationships.
Nearby a room of “Falling C” typings (works on paper made with an analog typewriter) make extensive visual formal experimentation with the first letter of Knowles’s name. The compositions are alternately free form with Cs randomly cascading down pages or typed in tightly composed boxes of Cs on others. This room dense with typings introduces us to the importance of order and disorder; pattern in repetition in Knowles’s work. In these works and others, Knowles’s exploration of the arbitrary and sometimes absurd aspect of naming brings to mind Rene Magritte’s paintings with words as well as the work of his compatriot Marcel Broodthaer’s work involving the lampooning use of his signature.
In the next room some of Knowles’s largest and most colorful paintings further convey the sense of gleeful play with language. These feature rhyming words listed vertically in Knowles’s distinctive hand: “Track, Trick, Truck” reads a painting in bright red on yellow. “Pack, Peck, Pick, Pock, Puck” rhymes in light pink on purple. While these celebrate a comedic sonic dimension of language, they also astutely draw similarities among different signifiers which sound alike, glimpsing the often arbitrary nature of linguistic operations.
A rich selection of Knowles’s typings here invite consideration of the artist’s brilliantly curious choice to use the manual typewriter a sense making machine if there ever was one as a medium for art making. Notable is the lean economy of form of these works and how they are constructed with office materials from everyday life: typewriter, ribbon ink and office paper. These qualities give the works an integral, almost sculptural presence. The percussively struck marks of the letters and symbols and the afterimages of the ink often surrounding the printed impressions offer a rich, deliberate factual reality, as they mark and mark at creative cross-purposes to the intended function of the machine. The typings also share formal affinities to concrete and minimal poetry of their time, but Knowles’s works have a direction and feeling all their own.
Knowles’s works are indeed playful, but I have a sense that they also comprise his efforts to reorder his world, reflecting a curiosity to know it as much as to make art about it. This propels his activity with an unusual empirical rigor and a notable psychodynamic charge; one feels an empirical process of inquisition within the playful probing of subjects. “It is possible, in art, to be both careless and rigorous at the same time” the critic/poet John Ashbery once wrote of Knowles’s work. Indeed, it is this unusual combination of tones in Knowles’s work which most resonates.
A group of typings of charts of pop songs from the 1960’s and 70’s are attention grabbing. Knowles recalls lists of pop songs from his protean memory: Top 10s, Top 20, Top 100, and so on. Aside from their charm as nostalgia laden records of pop culture, their seeming objective stability at first viewing eventually gave way to doubts leading one to wonder: how are such rankings determined? Are they based on the number of plays a song receives on the radio? If so, who chooses, who counts and how does Knowles remember? Soon doubts emerge about the socially constructed ways to measure the immeasurable. Here again, Knowles gently subverts and complicates our perceptions of what is usually taken for true.
Knowles’s working method brings to mind Gilles Deleuze’s thinking about repetition and difference in reproduction and making. Deleuze raises the question: does copying or repeating something do more to serve its similarities to the original or differences from it? In Knowles’s work, repetition of realities can go in at least two significant directions. With less abstract subject matter and highly repetitive works like This is Chris, the Top 20 Songs Chart typings, or the Simon Says game performances, Knowles’s rigorous extended repetition wears the meaning down until the wheels come off, distending the sign and signified pathways of sense making leaving only the remnants of a frame of meaning conveyance. Like a dismantled bicycle left outside on the streets of NYC for too long, the structure may have an integrity but is best not confused with a truth. The sound work “Emily Likes the TV” was my favorite example of this idea and is often gleefully hypnotic to hear performed:
“Emily likes the TV
Emily likes the TV because she watches the TV
Emily likes the TV
Emily likes the TV
Emily likes the TV because she watches the TV
Emily likes the TV
Emily likes the TV because she likes it.”
In Knowles’s less extensive forms of repetition, as with his more pictorial work the artist summons a certain incisive poignancy by way of his surprising selection and framing of subject matter. Paintings of post-911 terror alert charts in Knowles’s hand appear rightfully absurd in their colorful administrative abstractions. Flags, maps and election result graphics all come under gleeful scrutiny. In these works, the quotidian becomes shaken to the point of metaphysical disruption, offering a perceptual shifts of the previously innocuous.
Knowles’s method of working with reality-at-hand can be seen as a part of the “drawing from life” tradition of art making - a sensibility which any “fine art” student in the 20th century can attest - was a kind of thoughtless litmus test for artistic “talent” as educational culture was unduly obsessed with the crafting of an accurate “copy” of the real. By contrast, Knowles’s way of working from life reveals the value of considering other uses for the method beyond visual verisimilitude in favor of probing reality. Knowles’s work seems to be asking: What is this? What are its qualities? What is it called, and how does that sound? Much is regained in this gentle reconsideration of assumptions. Across works reconfiguring subjects from daily life we notice Knowles’s process of “working from life” as a rich means for questioning and mediating one's relationships with the external social forces we find ourselves living within.
A generous selection of Knowles’s paintings of clock faces along with a collection of his alarm clocks invite further consideration. As we are aware, but perhaps rarely contemplate, the time of clocks, like birth names, tether us all to the social rhythms and norms of society. With the display of over twenty clock paintings each indicating six o’clock, Knowles repetition probes the social stability of the subject with gleeful painterly repetition and variation, creating with a joyful range of different colors, shapes and mark making.
Nearby in a small side alcove, twenty wind-up alarm clocks are clustered, all clicking away out of sync in a cross cancelling cacophony, whimsically revealing each clock’s relatively inaccurate hold on our socially ordered reality. In this space, repetition is found among objects Knowles has selected (rather than made) to serve their differences via their inaccuracies in time setting. The standardizing authority of chronography is recalibrated to be the man-made construct it is, playfully shown as we rarely perceive it. Duchamp's “Three Standard Stoppages” 1913-14, and Mel Bochner’s measurement pieces (1968-) come to mind here as they also subvert socially constructed norms of reality.
A typing of the lyrics of “These are the Days” the final composition of the landmark opera “Einstein on the Beach” (the 1976 Robert Wilson / Philip Glass collaboration for which Knowles wrote the libretto) brought back to my ears the words sung at full symphonic operatic voice:
“would it get some wind for the sailboat. And it would get those for it is.
It could be Franky, it could be very fresh and clean, it could be.”
Recited boldly as they are in the recording, the words make linguistic sense at first listen, and yet any actual sense eventually gently slides away, while conveying a loose sense of it having once been present. With his libretto we gain a sense of what Robert Wilson said about encountering Knowles’s work for the first time: “The words had an obvious, careful, architectural patterning which created a whole new language using the building blocks of ours.” Knowles’s work leaves us with a poetic and even joyful sense that linguistic reality is constructed according to games of agreement, when this reality is over-enforced or disrupted, the floor of sense seems to fall away, revealing a completely different linguistic universe. This is a world which is similarly glimpsed in Beckett: where language conceals the real as much as reveals it, perhaps functioning more to provide a sense of comfort with its facades of stability than with the accuracy of its claims of truth. As with many metaphysical unmaskings, the affect is at once exhilarating with new possibilities while accompanied by a tinge of fear at the loss of illusion.
If one of the pleasures and values of looking at art involves perceiving glimpses of this shared world from a different point of view however partially or temporarily this survey is a refreshing reminder of this value; Knowles’s view on the world is profoundly original and rich in perceptual insight. WM
Brian Block is an artist based in New York City. His practice explores relationships between language and perception, looking at ways that thought and perception are co-constitutive. He works in printing, painting, research and writing.
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