New York

John Knight

American Fine Arts

Since the late ’60s, John Knight has been producing a thoroughgoing, institutionally critical art, and in this show he continues his caustic, often brilliant interrogative practice with an installation that was as intellectually rigorous as it was seductive. Entering the gallery, one was immediately engulfed by the visual and olfactory extravaganza of twenty-seven floral arrangements that seemed momentarily to transform the exhibition space into a flower shop or a funeral parlor. Each bouquet was accompanied by a small card acknowledging the name of the lending institution, in each case a restaurant identified with the ever-expanding art world of Manhattan. In turn, a wall text in the gallery indicated that Knight had also installed museological plaques in each participating restaurant announcing the temporary loan of the floral display to the gallery for exhibition.

The project included arrangements from restaurants in SoHo, as well as from trendy establishments in newer art neighborhoods, such as Chelsea and the Lower East Side, thus evoking the way in which galleries and restaurants are often linked to the same process of gentrification. The Wild Lily Tea Room was represented by a solitary wild lily in a small vase, Provence by a delicate pastel configuration, and the Monkey Bar by an abundance of colorful, “exotic,” and tropical blooms. The installation thus pointed to floral displays in restaurants as structural signifiers of what Knight calls “identity capital,” directly correlating class and taste, fine dining and fine art.

On one level, Knight’s project underscored the limits of exclusive art production as such by substituting a strategy based on the fluid nature of a collaborative exhibition. With the installation becoming a subtle send-up of the group show, Knight himself disappeared beneath the mélange of objects, functioning merely to facilitate the exposure of the work of others. At the same time, as each unique composition fused with the others in the room to culminate in a lush floral spectacle, the installation problematized the practice of privileging curatorial conception over an exhibition’s constitutive parts. Knight thus powerfully evoked the recent phenomenon of the “power curator,” exhibition organizers who position themselves as the real stars of the shows, coordinating artworks (and those who make them) in a manner not unlike the way artists handle their materials.

But there is more. The project required not only the participation of the restaurants but also an inordinate degree of cooperation from the gallery to ensure that the flowers and plants would receive proper attention. The installation was labor intensive, with the demands of constant cultivation potentially straining the gallery’s resources. Even with diligent care, though, most of the works still withered away, their ephemeral nature contradicting the idea of a “timeless” creation. And here our impression came full circle, back to the initial funereal aspect of the work. Whose funeral is it? The artist cleverly left the question open.

Alexander Alberro