New York

Win Knowlton

Bill Maynes Gallery

Since his second solo show featuring witty, Giacometti-esque floor pieces and fetishes (part of MoMA’s “Projects” series), Win Knowlton has played off the work of disparate artists—including Isamu Noguchi, David Smith, Eva Hesse, and Richard Serra—almost as if he were betting against the odds that he could keep up something distinctively “Knowlton” in his work. What can’t be shaken off turns out to be a quiet sense of humor: upending and fudging homages, Knowlton’s work seems to chuckle as much at its self-imposed game of catch-up as at the bad joke that the numbingly wide range of esthetic options in the “postmodern” era has become.

Knowlton’s most recent show amounts to yet another departure in style, but one that differs from the rest in that it falls outside his usual penchant for referencing other work and into an elegant, quietly authoritative realm of his own. Entitled trees, 1994–95, the piece, a stand of 32 birchlike plaster columns tapering upward from cinder-block bases to the ceiling where shims braced them, was intended by Knowlton to be regarded as a single work of sculpture rather than an installation—a distinction necessitated as much by the current fashion for installations as by the fact that trees all but filled the studio apartment-sized space of the gallery (a constraint that worked fully to the work’s advantage). In that way, trees set up its own, curiously interstitial, mode—one somewhere between the wall-to-wall frame of the installation and the isolation of an individual sculpture.

I went back to see it on different late spring afternoons, and each time felt as though I were walking in on something, though something neither private nor public—a forest, a world. The white of the plaster stalks and the white of the gallery walls seemed, simultaneously, to soak up, intensify, and cool-off the given light. The cinder blocks and shims, mirroring one another’s rectilinearity, pointed up the work’s artifice by making visible its means of support, but with a naturalness, vis à vis the whole, of earth and sky. At the center, perched on a cinderblock, was a fake blue bird—a figure that confessed to Knowlton’s unease with the work’s romanticism while it also, perhaps, flipped a “bird” at our very need to ironize lyricism.

Mimetic, anti-illusionist, lyrical, and whimsical, trees managed to do superbly what so much current art “pines” to do at all. It even managed, with its fusion of Emerson and Giacometti, to restore some of the lyrical force to the normally cloying, utopian use of a lower case first letter in a title.

Thad Ziolkowski