Jan Knap

Galeria Toselli

Jan Knap’s eight paintings and six watercolors shown here (all from 1988) glow with what appears to be a pure white light. Harmonies of bright, vibrant colors are accompanied by orderly, well-crafted forms and smooth, clean, and calm surfaces. But beyond the formal aspects of this visually seductive, almost tranquilizing body of work lies a set of religious beliefs tied to both a certain perception of history and an ideal of the social present. These works function as representations of fictional episodes in the life of Jesus, and as representations of an idealized contemporary Christian existence.

In one of Knap’s untitled works shown here, light flows in through an open, uncovered window to illuminate a quotidian scene of family life. Closest to the foreground is a simple wooden table half-covered by a crisp white tablecloth, upon which sits a solitary apple. Sitting on the floor, a boy plays the violin while a girl holds the music before him; they are small, with large foreheads, rosy cheeks, and wings. Scattered on the floor are a toy truck, a miniature rocking horse, a book, a cat, a vase filled with white lilies, and a white tub filled with water. A simply dressed woman with a golden halo sits in a chair between the table and an ironing board. Her back is to the open window and her downward gaze is directed toward the children at her feet. A bare-chested blond boy with a golden halo sits on her lap, fascinated by the bird that is perched on his finger. Other birds have entered through the open window, as has a butterfly. A second winged girl holds a xylophone for the haloed boy while staring at the bird on his finger. In a second room seen through an open door, the halo-bearing father is engaged in his carpentry as another boy looks on.

The work opens a chain of symbolic references that call into question the role and presence of each of the pictured elements. The ironing board, strangely one of the more important elements in the composition, seems to dissect the figure of the woman precisely at the neck. The white cloth covering the corner of the table obstructs a vision of the woman’s upper thighs, pelvis, and lower torso. The apple, in its two-dimensional position, then, can be read as an indicator, like an adhesive red dot on a white surface, of the exact location of her unrepresented genitals. In his Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, Freud notes that in the interpretation of dreams, apples and fruit in general (as well as vessels, wooden tables, and flowers) can be seen as representations of the female genitals. He also describes dreams of flying as indicative of general sexual excitement and flying objects as representations of the male sexual organ. Here the apple is also connected to its biblical symbolism as a representation of temptation and original sin. As the apple is the only thing on the table between the woman and the viewer, she can be seen as passively offering the apple, or, extending this interpretation, offering her sex.

With this work Knap simultaneously glorifies the immaculate conception—the white flowers (female virginity), the white tub filled with water (immaculate birth)—and suppresses female sexuality. In the context of an illustration of Christian beauty, Knap’s image sexualizes difference. The open door between the man’s workspace and the living space where the woman is represented; the half-covered, half-exposed table; the girl who holds the pages of a book open before the boy who plays the violin; the smaller boy’s possession of the bird and the girl’s fascination with his possession; the woman who passively offers the apple, and the man who actively works with a phallic plank of wood: all can be seen as manifestations of difference, encouraging both a sexist and a sexualized reading. This image of holy-family life—Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus—reflects Knap’s perception of a social present projected through the authority of well-known, well-established religious beliefs. Unlike other contemporary artists whose work questions current perceptions of Christianity—from the notion of sacrifice in the work of Hermann Nitsch to the notion of “brotherly love” and the homoerotic life of Jesus in the works of David McDermott and Peter McGough—Knap presents a visually seductive, beautified reality which embraces the contradictions that surround current religious practice.

Anthony Iannacci