Simplicity at play in Christopher Knowles’ “In a Word”

REVIEW | In a retrospective at Contemporary Art Museum Houston, Knowles' work pares down social observations


“In a Word,” the current exhibition from Christopher Knowles at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, positions itself as a portrait of the artist throughout his career, attempting to explore the notion of personhood through the varied media formats that have consumed his attention over the years.

With work dating to the early 1970s, the show — organized by Phliadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art and the ICA Chief Curator Anthony Elms with guest curation from Pulizter-winning critic Hilton Als — explores a range of work from Knowles.

Beginning in the early 1970s, while still a teenager, Knowles has collaborated along side groundbreaking theater artist Robert Wilson. Knowles’ poetry was used as libretto text in Philip Glass’ 1976 minimalist opera, “Einstein on the Beach,” which Wilson staged and directed. And poet John Asberry has dubbed Knowles’ poetry “pure conceptualism.”

However Knowles’ identity feels secondary to the sweeping commentary on pop culture and media consumption. In his paintings, drawings, poetry, performances, and subsequent audio collages, Knowles emerges not as an artist who is seeking to know himself; on the contrary, it feels like a life’s study in explaining the world around him instead of a look inward.

Knowles is often described as autistic (differing sources point to brain damage and an early life that was largely non-verbal) and his practice is self-taught, which is relevant to the extent that it’s often discussed regarding criticism of his work. Personally, I’m not sure how much bearing either of those details have on his art. The list of those that are self-taught in the contemporary art field is too long to mention. Likewise autism, or neurological differences, manifests itself in so many different traits and behaviors, that the cataloging of Knowles as an autistic artist no more concretely defines his work than if you cataloged someone by their gender, sexual orientation, or race.

That expressed, Knowles’ work can be described as both childlike and simplistic; how you choose to embrace that depends on your appreciation of linear, uncomplicated work. His subject matter flourishes in the familiar: letters to friends; studies of pop figures; political satire; reconstructions of childhood games and idols.

His two “Sun” paintings, done in both primary and secondary colors, earmark the gallery walls and radiate down on the exhibition in bright, blunt acrylic. In “The Cow Drawing,” Knowles depicts, in marker on paper, two cartoonishly-crafted cows, loping and rounded without ears or horns; the quickly-applied saturated black marker highlights the cow’s spots.

In “Fire Island Party Invite,” a nude, roughly crafted family stares forward into a blank beachscape. In each of these works, you can see Knowles’ hand at play. The strokes are heavy and metered. These exercises — and indeed much of the show’s work — are loosely compiled to reflect a specific era or mediums and draw from the themes of organization and pattern.

But the collection that achieves this balance most succinctly is Knowles’ typings, drawings made with a typewriter. In Knowles’ typings, a meticulous, maybe even obsessive, attention to visual structure creates a dynamic series of personal affectations and constructed images.

In “SEK 21st Birthday 1981 (Pyramid Skylight),” the iteration of the number 21 (and forms surrounding it) create a flag, nestled within a letter, that’s addressed as a birthday greeting. Red and black ink compose the image and its rudimentary geometry mimics the effect of quilting or needlepoint, even expressing a slight fluctuation of texture in the key’s imprints upon the paper. An era-appropriate piece titled “Space Invaders” takes a scene from the game and maps it out in keystrokes.

The collection of Knowles’ typings on exhibit ebb between dense expressions of formed objects with pops of color (“C-Squares”) and flows with pieces that lean on negative space to create a complete portrait of work (“The Bird Typing”).

Artists working with type is well-tread territory of course, but Knowles approach feels singular. It’s a manipulation and interpretation of the world around him, confined to specifically formulated structures, that capture Knowles’ attention and encompass his artistic vision. While that vision is strongest in the typings, his “Lego” flags and series of “Untitled (Alert Paintings)” also poignantly box pop culture and personal observations in quick, digestible visual bites.

It’s easy to mythologize Knowles’ work as being dictated by a sense of order that is too abstract to be quantified. Certainly, it expresses a means of cataloging and archiving the world around him that might feel arbitrary to an outsider who is unwilling to look between the rigidly constructed lines.

But it’s art that fulfills a mental portrait brought to life, rather than an exploration of the medium that evolves and flows through the process. The commentary the art presents is not pointed, the strokes are not expertly executed. There’s many attributes of Knowles’ work that read as unpalatable.

“In a Word” doesn’t strive to positon Knowles as an expert artist. Rather, it seems to present Knowles as a sympathetic observer to the world’s highlight reel over the last 50 years. It’s just a matter of whether you’re willing to celebrate Knowles perspective on the world, or not.

“In a Word” continues through March 25 at the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston.

Caitlin Greenwood
Caitlin Greenwood
Caitlin Greenwood is an arts and culture writer who calls Texas home. She currently lives and works in Austin.

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