Tom Knechtels new paintings and drawings are lush pieces that depict both humans and animals at their most complex and most basic. In his exhibition A Mare's Nest, a Talking Flounder and Other Follies he presents works confirming both his technical dexterity and his imaginative prowess.
Knechtel has been making art for the last 25 years. Born in Palo Alto, he studied at CalArts receiving a BFA and an MFA in the 1970s, and has since made Los Angeles his home. Although Los Angeles is less his inspiration than his trips to Japan and India (where he looked into all forms of calligraphy, Kabuki theatre, and Indian folk art paintings), his works have a distinctly L.A. feel. They share a kinship with the paintings of another CalArts alum, Lari Pittman as well as with the drawings of Megan Williams and Mike Kelley.
Rather than paint from his imagination, Knechtel transforms the observable. Well known for his elegant drawings of animals--specifically images of goats, water buffalos, crows, cows and flounders--Knechtel depicts these beasts with the utmost sincerity. They occupy the page, looking out, in or up as if they were meant to be there. Knechtel's drawn or painted gestures dance on the paper, imbuing the depicted animals with life. In a watercolor entitled Flounder (3) he articulates the fish's essence with a few simple strokes. The lines define the form, yet what we are looking at seems to be more than just a picture of a fish. The result is similar in his charcoal drawings. The animals, whether drawn alone or in pairs, convey distinct personalities and emotions.
Although animals are the subject of the majority of Knechtel's drawings they are less prevalent in his paintings. As Knechtel has remarked, "I think of my paintings as being filled with the stuff of literature and language: metaphor, rhymes, narrative, character." Knechtel paints slowly, never making more than a few major works per year. Each is intricate and jam packed with information, whereas his drawings are comparatively sparse and spontaneous.
The focal point of this exhibition is a painting entitled A Mare's Nest. Against a vibrant pink background the figure of a naked man stands in an ambiguous landscape. He shares the foreground with a large black crow. A cloud of information encases his head. Above the man, as if in another space, the architecture recedes. Every aspect of A Mare's Nest invites close scrutiny. New details become apparent at each turn. The eye moves from the architectural space at the top of the painting, to the man, to the black crow following a bright green splash as it trickles down the composition. One feels as confused as the crow, whose white thought bubble is filled with a cacophony of overlapping lines and shapes. Similarly the information around the figures head is a densely painted halo presenting man and beast, nature and culture, desire and lust, activity and solitude.
Knechtel once remarked, "How can I convince you of the primacy of my own pleasure and of my conviction that those pleasures are not merely onanistic but help to articulate the world?" Through the emotion in his art, Knechtel's primacy of pleasure becomes clear.
As is typical of his work, A Mare's Nest has an otherworldliness to it. Smaller paintings like The Gaudy Presence and Map also combine decorative and spiritual elements in a swirl of color and line. Drawn from the observable, from Asian sources, as well as from mythical and imagined realities, his paintings present a consistently stimulating flow of images which at their best are capable of providing an experience that transforms the way you normally regard these varied sources.
Map, oil on linen,
36 x 11", 1998-99.
Map (detail) oil on linen,
36 x 11", 1998-99.
Flounder (3), watercolor on
paper, 11 x 15, 1999.
A Mare's Nest" (detail),
oil on linen, 66 x 36", 2000.