New York

Christopher Knowles

Holly Solomon Gallery

Christopher Knowles’ new exhibition consists of typed paper pieces, which are a sort of exaggerated concrete poetry. I say exaggerated because of all the 20th-century poetry that has incorporated pictures and conscious mechanisms of design, I know of none that dissolves into visual effect as completely as Knowles’ does. In fact, Knowles’ work is probably more visual than literary, though it does include pages that are nothing but typed narratives. Narratives . . . Knowles’ writing, as those who are familiar with his work for Robert Wilson will be aware, is neither grammatical, nor properly syntactical, nor especially respectful of time, clear exposition, or any standard logic of presenting ideas or images. It is a highly disjunctive assembly of thoughts, sounds and phrases so commonly used that they are more like autonomous objects than groups of words describing objects. I suppose this could be called a form of stream-of-consciousness writing, but if so, Knowles’ consciousness is one that will leap from world to world in one instant, then collapse into a frantic repetitive chant in the next.

In the current show Knowles leaps just as easily from words to pictures—the latter are dense, typed silhouettes in red and green, composed of endless C’s (for Christopher?)—and his work deliberately gives the sense of being confused about whether to choose a word, phrase or visual image. I was reminded of the flash cards kindergarten teachers use—a picture of a cat with CAT spelled out beneath—and in a way Knowles is telling a story of learning to attach words to things. Clearly, the learning process in Knowles’ story is an immensely painful and difficult one, for at times language seems wholly inadequate to a thought and crumbles into broken, isolated letters or abdicates to pictures. Yet elsewhere the same language, the same words, will be so overly adequate that it will spill out in almost undifferentiated profusion.

The most astonishing visual effect of this show is in the way Knowles’ typed sheets become huge abstract gestures—sometimes like gigantic directional signs—when seen at some distance from the wall. Because of the blocky shape of typed imagery, the work appears to be terribly crude, graceless, unnuanced. Yet when one steps halfway close to the pieces, one recognizes a fantastic density of nuancing and detail. (Much of this detail is literary, it is true—that is, the details are verbally described images rather than pictorially described ones—but this seems to make little difference since transitions from word to picture are occurring so smoothly and consistently throughout Knowles’ work.) One feels an enormous gulf between the general and specific appearances of a thing—between, by extension, inner and outer selves. And Knowles will not permit us facilely to value either side of the opposition above the other. We cannot prefer inner to outer, or even say we learn more from either one.

Knowles’ work operates on many levels, and is, presumably, autobiographical (the difficulty of describing and communicating that it depicts may well have been the same difficulty Knowles experienced as an autistic child.) Beyond this most personal meaning, however, it is very much the story of a visual artist at work in a world where words, spoken or written, are virtually omnipotent. Where we tend to think of words and pictures in an adversary relation—where we assign certain territories of experience as property to one or the other—Knowles describes the two as intimately linked. The outcome is at once celebrative—bounty of communication is filled with delight for Knowles—and terribly lonely. For out of the great density of typed letters in Knowles’ show, only a few images move out of the realm of the personal and finally materialize so that the viewer may incorporate them into himself.

Leo Rubinfien