Los Angeles

Tom Knechtel

Grant Selwyn Fine Art

Tom Knechtel knows how to load up a picture, but he also knows how to pare it down, and in cobbling together the intricate, ornate, and flamboyant, as well as the loose, minimal, and austere, the artist produces what ought to be visual train wrecks but instead are carnivalesque ballets, apparently choreographed on the fly. His latest offering included an elegant collection of reductive drawings punctuated by oil paintings modest in scale but grand and complex in story.

Knechtel samples Italian quattrocento, Renaissance, Mannerist, and Baroque painting; the more fantastic Northern European religious art; Victorian illustration; Indian miniatures; medieval illuminations; Asian landscapes, maps, and calligraphy; Rococo flourishes, naturalist illustration, and animal caricature; Color Field and push-pull formalism, with an occasional sip of Pop. The result reads as a celebration of painting and drawing’s traditions, the modes of representation and their varied connotations available for the artist to employ in his densely barnacled, open-ended narratives. Like the pictures themselves, Knechtel’s cast is an odd, ragtag bunch who don’t seem like they should be as elegant as they are. The characters are generally men or animals or plants—or all of the above. A robust fellow in A Mare’s Nest, 2000, becomes queen, clown, and martyr, done up in an elaborate wig/halo and ruffled “collar,” a collage of Lilliputian architectural renderings, corporate logos, flora and fauna, and the intertwined limbs of tiny wrestlers and bodybuilders. The figure’s shoulders are equipped with sideview mirrors for hindsight, vanity, or perhaps simply self-reflection, and his formal skirt is peeled open to reveal its hidden support structure as well as his anatomical correctness, while a cup in his hand runs over with an acid-green liquid pouring down on him from a tipped urn in a vignette above. In The Gaudy Presence,1999–2000, meanwhile, an ugly red flatfish rendered in lovely gestural brushwork splits in half to spill a full-color inner world that is at once gross and engrossingly beautiful. Map, 1998-99, a vertical composition horizontally bisected, splits the world into above and below, heavenly and terrestrial, night and day, cold and warm, as a band of barnyard animals prances and dances along the border.

There’s a lot of sex, or at least sexuality in these works, delivered with an often comical candor, and shades of homoeroticism abound. But in Knechtel’s works, sex, fancy, and fantasy, even when suggesting the hot and heavy, tend to be curiously modest conveyors of a whole range of experience and feeling: rapture, disappointment, desire, confusion, shame, terror, transformation,revelation, indulgence, restraint. Despite the occasional hint of the classical ideal or the grand pageantry of nature, no one here is too pretty; the critters, often culled from the less glamorous comers of the animal kingdom (goats, chickens, crows, bottom-feeding fish), tend to be scrappy, while the humans are consistent only in their deviation from norms of beauty, grace, and perfection (middle-aged, pudgy, oddly proportioned and seemingly exposed, more naked than nude). Though it’s an admittedly goofy reach, Knechtel’s players-caught in private moments, letting it all hang out-remind me of Degas’s dancers, caught dressing, preening, practicing, stretching, or seen from offstage rather than front and center. As with Degas, it is hard to tell at times whether Knechtel is giving his figures the kindest cut, but he does seem at least to search for, and reveal, a kind of human honesty.

Christopher Miles