New York

Alison Knowles, A Rolling Stone Gathers No Moss, 2011, found materials, acrylic, raw flax, hand stamps, raw cotton, maple, tea-stained frame, 17 1/4 x 22 1/2 x 4".

Alison Knowles, A Rolling Stone Gathers No Moss, 2011, found materials, acrylic, raw flax, hand stamps, raw cotton, maple, tea-stained frame, 17 1/4 x 22 1/2 x 4".

Alison Knowles

James Fuentes

Alison Knowles, A Rolling Stone Gathers No Moss, 2011, found materials, acrylic, raw flax, hand stamps, raw cotton, maple, tea-stained frame, 17 1/4 x 22 1/2 x 4".

Best known for her role as a founder of Fluxus some five decades ago, Alison Knowles has produced a remarkably multivalent yet precise body of work during the course of her long career, working in painting, sculpture, performance, sound, and in various ways with the printed and spoken word. For many years, I associated Knowles with beans—yes, those ubiquitous and overdetermined foodstuffs—because they so often appear in her performances, as do other such everyday materials. Like some figures with whom she is often associated (Marcel Duchamp and John Cage, for instance), Knowles can be seen as plumbing the otherwise unremarkable, anointing the banal with the moniker of Art, and, in so doing, giving the low, the fleeting, and the prosaic a momentarily different shape.

Yet, as much as Knowles has engaged in the now-familiar enterprise of rag-picking—trolling the streets for found objects (“other people’s trash,” as the saying goes)—or ritualizing the already ritualistic (highlighting the social nature of daily meals, for instance, as she did in her 1969 Identical Lunch, which was, incidentally, restaged this year at New York’s Museum of Modern Art), she isn’t in the business of transubstantiation. If her various reframings ask that we look at all kinds of things and activities again, these things and activities are not—to my mind at least—wholly recast, but retain an aspect of their provenance in the world outside of aesthetic or ideational rehabilitation. Unlike Duchamp (or, rather, the pervasive understanding of Duchamp), Knowles isn’t only “pointing” at things to render them “concepts”; instead, her procedures allow her found objects to retain something of their grit, and, though one risks romanticizing her practice by saying so, each feels like it has a history—both before Knowles, and owing to her interest in it. And though these objects have accrued a kind of symbolic value simply by appearing in Knowles’s frame, they remain clearly beat-up and ragged—worn, by any other standard.

In her recent show at James Fuentes LLC, “Clear Skies All Week,” Knowles presented fourteen works, all of which were produced during this decade but whose materials, it seems, were collected by the artist over the course of some forty years. A number of pieces comprised objects placed on framed raw cotton and/or raw flax. These works often incorporated shoes, or parts of shoes (another trope Knowles has long pursued), and also included a work glove, a plastic glove, an eggbeater, an exhausted tube of glue, twine, and instances of less definable organic matter (what looked to be bones, rocks, twigs). Placed together, approximating rebuses but refusing to cohere into readable meanings, the compositions were often attended by stamped words (usually also the title and usually also colloquial or aphoristic), as in one work from 2011, A Rolling Stone Gathers No Moss.

In other pieces, such as the strangely elegant Cave Wall, 2003—in which lentils are embedded within a sheet of oat flax—Knowles allows materials to remain more abstract. And in several “Event Threads” from 2006, vertical lengths of thread hang like wispy talismans carrying various items found by Knowles in her peregrinations. If, as a teacher of mine once told me, every object is a slow event, Knowles’s “threads” embody this concept, delivering quiet narratives via the barest of means.

Johanna Burton