elsewhere: a solo exhibition by Kent Knowles, at Kai Lin through October 24, is a festival of unnerving allegory. Women are alternately protected or amusingly overwhelmed by mammals, birds, insects and sea creatures. Portraiture that brings a pleased smile on one level is heartbreakingly poignant on another.
For example, the faces of girls and young women that appear on a series of ceramic plates embody a level of awkwardness, pathos and haunted discomfort somewhere between the paintings of the Northern Renaissance and Margaret Keane. The adjacent oil painting of an anomalous landscape in which an enormous toucan is cradled in the arms of a young woman sleeping in the crook of a tree branch exemplifies a similar feeling of something simultaneously comforting and disturbing, eliciting not fear but decentered displacement. Something is amiss in this land of dreams, but whatever it is, it isn’t malevolent.
It’s worth quickly surveying the details of Knowles’ main categories. Let’s start with encounters on the seacoast.
In Urchin, a woman impassively holds a sea urchin while tolerating the gropings of an amorous octopus. Parabola depicts a woman wearing a determinedly protective expression as she grasps an eel against the predatory swoop of a seabird.
Fisher shows a solitary woman in hip boots and long yellow coat (not an oilskin slicker, but close enough) holding an owl amid a marshy landscape. Tern portrays a girl similarly clad in boots and yellow coat, but in a snowy landscape where she gazes upward at a hovering seabird.
The theme of bemused wonder and vaguely distorted acts of protection continues in other works. The injured birds of all species shown in Injured Birds cluster around the head of a woman who stares straight ahead, not responding to or looking at any of them.
In elsewhere, from which the exhibition takes its title, the relationship with the surrounding animals is quite different. In a flat, open landscape, a woman lies on her back with her knees raised, wearing a stunned, open-mouthed expression that could connote either trauma or ecstasy. Flanking her protectively on either side are a doe, still wearing the spots that characterize fawns, and an adolescent buck whose stubby antlers seem still coated with velvet.
All this is beautifully painted; the highlights on the antlers, for example, stand alone as gestural marks, one of many moments in which Knowles’ command of his medium becomes apparent. The spots on the doe match perfectly the shape and color of the surrounding flowers, a modest trick that unifies the composition and implies, perhaps, a unity of nature beyond the simple visual effect.
But what exactly is going on here? It’s the slippage between obvious allegory and the uncertain symbolism of dreams that make Knowles’ work alluringly fascinating. Even when we know that he thinks of these works as taking place in the realm of personal fantasy in which family dynamics get worked out, nothing about them wears the coat of heavy-handed anxiety we so often associate with the term Freudian.
Well, almost nothing. People who are creeped out by beetles will be unnerved by the oversized insects posed around the mother and child in Daisy Chain. The woman’s facial expression could be interpreted as utter ecstasy or as complete repulsion at the winged creature covering one of her eyes.
Fortunately, the show makes it clear that Knowles adores moths and beetles. Sculptural enlargements of both are affixed to the walls, and are among Knowles’ best 3-D attainments in terms of rendering insect body textures both accurately and appealingly. These are attractive images of creatures whose loveliness suddenly becomes apparent. This carries over into his paintings of various species of moth, in formats ranging from gorgeous close-up to entomological specimen board.
Knowles’ sculptures of people are as amusingly scary as his insects are irresistibly seductive. The woman in the portrait bust Sweater wears what resembles a second pair of eyes on her forehead (presumably they’re sunglasses, but they don’t look like it), and the nubs on her sweater are somewhere between the spines on a sea urchin and the protrusions on the floating mines of last century’s maritime wars.
Ghost is a child-sized sculptural figure shrouded in a painted blanket, standing unobtrusively at the end of an otherwise empty hallway. Poised upright and inert in a covering without eyeholes or openings for arms, it’s a harmless and whimsical specter, yet ultimately an unsettling one.
It’s this alternation of whimsy, pathos and sense of what Wordsworth called “something far more deeply interfused” that makes Knowles’ oeuvre immensely fascinating. But it may take a while to become attuned to his delight-inducing method of keeping us just a little off balance.