Los Angeles

Tom Knechtel

Rosamund Felsen Gallery

Composed with an ardor that masquerades as cool dispassion, Tom Knechtel’s new multipaneled paintings are luxuriant, operatic scenarios of love and yearning. Along with the large pastel and conté “portraits” of animals shown here, these paintings portray a phantasmagoric netherworld that at first appears cacophonous but is ultimately compositionally as well as emotionally resolved; these tales of gay eroticism are driven in equal parts by reason and desire.

Although the two large paintings—Servant of Two Masters 1993–94, and The Flood, 1993–94—are not composed with the grand rhetorical gestures of Abstract Expressionism, they have a theatricality and self-confidence that vies with the aggressive “presence” of a work by Jackson Pollock or Franz Kline. But the elaborately detailed, meticulously rendered, jewellike surfaces of Knechtel’s pictures, heaped with riotous, swirling clouds of flora, fauna, and variously gendered male figures, possess an intimacy that takes us far from the ejaculatory swaths of paint and hysterical subjectivism of AbEx. Highly charged and far more personal, these two pieces draw their explosive emotional impact from narrative content and detail rather than from gestural pyrotechnics. Knechtel’s complicated scenarios have a forced, oneiric incongruity that tweak them finally into the realm of Surrealism, merging the imaginative universes of Hieronymous Bosch and Salvador Dali with the strange, wise sensibility that informs children’s books such as The Phantom Tollbooth.

The Flood begins with an altar-piece-shaped scene on the far left panel: a horse/fountain/penis spouts water into the velvet black night, while a bird eviscerates a toad next to a supine, male figure. A narrow horizontal panel, a scream of white fog through which a man and a horse tumble, connects this lugubrious night scene with the larger two right panels, which move from an interrupted domestic setting, with Victorian chair and table tumbling into a whirl of activity led by a satyrlike figure on a horse, to an eruption of tornado-force winds on the far right. Buildings, horses, and other animals are swept into this maelstrom. Servant of Two Masters, a similarly complex but more hieratic scene, which also moves from dark to light, contains dancing bears (one with its guts hanging out), fleshy men in dresses, and exquisitely traced male figures tenderly and passionately making love.

The anthropomorphized animal portraits provided the emotional and psychological center of this show. More modest in conception, their seeming innocence is continually enlivened by an intense psychological resonance that is at once savage and tender. The Toad, stalwart, stubborn, paternal, remains unmoved by the swarm of moths above; Ganesha, an elephant-turned-man is mournful, a cipher of aging male flesh while the feisty, knowing Goat communicates a (feminine?) wisdom.

Knechtel’s artistic brilliance lies in his technical virtuosity as well as in his extraordinary ability to connect with the viewer on multiple levels—emotionally (both consciously and on the deep subconscious level of childhood fantasy), intellectually, and sensually. His cinematic large-scale paintings, with their complex, melodramatic scenes of loneliness, conquest, and queer longing, and the disarmingly direct psychological portraits of animal “personalities” speak gently but directly of the glorious inexhaustibility of desire.

Amelia Jones