Los Angeles

Tom Knechtel

Pence Gallery

In the spirit of childhood curiosity and horror, Tom Knechtel has drawn and painted a world of animals, principally the bat. Early in life most children learn that bats are to be feared. The animals’ habits—sleeping upside down, seeing by sonic screeches—seem too complicated and surreal for barbaric city intelligence. Knechtel depicts the maligned creatures in various states of life and death, most of them fantasy dramas. In a series of six silverpoint portraits entitled “A Commedia Dell’Arte Troupe for Nora Klein,” 1988, Knechtel has drawn immaculate straightforward renderings of bats’ faces. He aligns each bat with one of the clown characters from this theatrical form: the old man, the liar, the stutterer. The 10-by-8-inch format furthers this character-portrait effect. These little ghouls’ faces are adorable and repulsive, as ornate and complex as Kabuki masks.

Knechtel often arranges bats in group configurations. Bat Tree, 1987, consists of a humongous pile-up of wings, hooks, noses, and ears. The bats clustered in the middle of the tree are upside down and sleeping while a feisty group at the top are misbehaving in some obscure, vaguely sexual way. A Marriage of a Moon and a Worm, 1988, offers a fantastic, expanded wonderland. A group of phallic plant life is seen in its entirety: both the foliage that grows up into the air and the complicated system of roots and bulbs that extends down into the earth. Also visible in this subterranean cross-section is a giant worm and some dinosaur bones. Back above ground, two cheerful weasels are shown fucking happily. Knechtel has made the animals’ genitals appear transparent, so we can see the sperm gathering inside the testicles, swimming through the cock like willful guppies, and butting up against the surface of a sunlike ovum. All of Knechtel’s depictions of animals have a sexual energy that is both assertive and innocent. The animals are small and delicate, muscular and high-strung. The ears, nose, tongue, and cock of every single bat is ribbed, pointy, erect.

Knechtel finds patterns in everything. A twisting shape is repeated in several pieces. In Natural History, 1988, a curved torrent of plants and bugs angles toward a floating bat’s open mouth. Looping ribbons with the word “bat” written in French, German, Italian, Spanish, and Latin unfurl from the bat’s anus. Knechtel links bats with the Romance languages and with Renaissance paintings, creating an angelic aura around them.

Benjamin Weissman