Kent Knowles Interview with John Lee Matney
JLM :Who were the most influential artists for you in the development of your work? What else has influenced you?
KK: I think my strongest influence has been my upbringing. My father was a chaplain in the Air Force, and we would relocate every 3 years, traveling all over the world. I remember first being interested in art when we moved to Okinawa. My teacher there arranged for a special appointment with a famous printmaker on the island. I regret that I have forgotten his name, but the artist was really cool and about 90 years old. I loved the idea of engaging in a field in which you work your entire lifetime. 3 years later, we moved to Germany. There I began to look at paintings seriously, mainly in the cathedrals and museums. My teacher there, Mr. Fine was a huge influence on me. He exposed me to many artists, like Gauguin, Michelangelo, the German Expressionists and the Symbolists. He lead several trips to Cologne and other art centers in Europe, making sure I was exposed to the incredible scope of work there. In addition, my folks were extremely supportive, enrolling me in additional classes and workshops. One that particularly changed my life and got me into figuration, was a week-long workshop in a small town called Oberwesel. The featured artist was a man named Kurt Wenner, who is known widely for his illusionistic pastel street drawings. Five days with him changed my life. Looking at his work now, I can clearly see his influence.
As I got more into figurative painting, I began to assemble a small group of influences who continue to spur me on or break my heart with their brilliance. I am particularly fond of Thomas Hart Benton, Stanley Spencer and Paula Rego. With Spencer, it is a love of his warmth. Each of his paintings feel cozy and sincere – as if he was planning to keep each one.
With Rego, I enjoy the power her figures possess – strong and awkward. Each body seeming to exist beyond the setting it occupies.
Benton is a personal hero. His designs are so forceful, looking at them feels like being caught in the center of a tornado. He allows for the figures to support the overall composition, which I try to emulate, although I will admit, I do so less successfully.
JLM: What are some of the landmark pieces in your career- examples and background information- some photographs?
KK: I have been painting for about 20 years, beginning in high school when I was eighteen. What I find alarming is how similar my current work is to that which was created in the early days.
The first time I made a painting that impressed me occurred during my Junior year as an undergraduate at Savannah College of Art and Design. “Revival” (Knowles 1) gave me great satisfaction, because I felt like I was addressing the forms I had studied with Wenner, while also reflecting self-awareness. I felt as if the figure was a version of me, waking up to my potential. It was also the first time I had worked in a square format, which I have returned to in recent years.
Knowles 1 – REVIVAL
This painting opened many doors for me, permitting me to address elements that I feel have become signatures of my work: the distorted figure, mysticism, the heavy forms and (with the inclusion of a golf course setting) subject matter that honors the old while engaging the new.
A second painting that I feel helped me to progress was “TIME TRAVEL” (Knowles 2), which I created during my second year as a grad student at the University of Georgia.
Again, the square format and distorted figure, but this time, the distortion is more exaggerated and I feel the momentum of the form is propelling the viewer and the figure beyond the surface. Still no Benton, but a step in the right direction.
Knowles 2 – TIME TRAVEL
This was also a turning point for me, in that I realized I was making a mistake by trying to clothe my figures in antique garb. I recall someone asking, “why the toga”? I hadn’t been aware that I was doing this, but it came to my attention in this painting. I think this is a trap many figurative artists fall into. When looking at the old master works and emulating them, I think the dress gets caught somewhere in the mix.
It was this realization that caused me to start looking at contemporary fashion, and that has been a driving force in the work since.
A more recent painting, “BLOOM” (Knowles 3) illustrates this.
Knowles 3 - BLOOM
JLM: How has
your work and/or your attitude toward your work evolved over the last few years.
Elaborate on your process
Drawing has always been a crucial part of my process. I don’t do any preliminary work for the paintings, I just start drawing on the canvas with paint. Many of the images begin as one thing and end as another – overlapping lines and abandoned forms giving way to new bodies. I recently documented the evolution of one of my paintings, and it was very revealing to see just how many incarnations the figures endure.
It is clear to me now that I am painting my life. Sometimes the symbols are concealed, while at other times they are blatantly transparent.
For example, when my wife and I were contemplating starting a family, the anxiety and uncertainty of having children dominated our thoughts. The painting “RAINBOWS” (Knowles 4) was created during that time, and it clearly illustrates our trepidation.
Knowles 4 - RAINBOWS
However, sometimes a painting will come off of the easel a complete mystery. One such work is “YONDER” (Knowles 5).
Knowles 5 – YONDER
JLM: Collectors in Virginia have purchased your works "Alto" and "Ojo" and "Dark Cloud"
Can you elaborate on these pieces- as well the piece we have in stock "Sway",
"Tether "and the Pyramid pieces
KK: “ALTO” (Knowles 6) is about my struggle to maintain a career that is both sensible and creative. Not an easy thing to do. The figure in the foreground and the figure in the background are one and the same. The only difference is that the large figure is being kept from completely floating away, by a small collection of marbles that keep her grounded. She illustrates my current state, while the figure in the distance represents what could be.
ALTO – Knowles 6
“OJO” (Knowles 7) is, I regret, one of those paintings which I know nothing about. I recall feeling at the time, how useless words can be. How wise men tend to speak less.
OJO – Knowles
“DARK CLOUD” (Knowles 8) is mainly about my wife. Getting to know someone over a long period of time is kind of a rare thing. We live in a disposable society where investment is not prized. The painting is basically about knowing when to engage my wife and when to leave her alone
DARK CLOUD – Knowles 8
“SWAY” (Knowles 9) is about domesticity. Every now and then, the language of the Symbolists will creep back into my imagery. I think of Bocklin and his great paintings about Centaurs. Something about the half-man, half-beast seems a very appropriate symbol for the domesticated man. Although powerful, the beast seems to enjoy being lead around, pacified.
SWAY – Knowles 9
“TETHER” (Knowles 10) is about the spectacle of childbirth. I had tried to prepare myself for the delivery of my first born, but the event overwhelmed me. I was floored by the thing. It was no different the second time around. I felt a shift in my responsibilities and my perspective on life. Having this new presence in your world that is foreign, yet uniquely yours.
TETHER – Knowles 10
“PYRAMID” (Knowles 11) is an older painting, created during the time of Hurricane Katrina. While most of my work is a direct reflection of my life, I was caught off-guard by the many tragedies related to the storm. I felt guilty for not doing anything about it. I created a small series of work related to the event. Most were paintings of architecture, devoid of human life. Ghost shells that endured some catastrophe and remained long after the people were gone.
PYRAMID – Knowles 11
JLM: Elaborate on the "Urchin" Piece and the piece "Island"
KK: These paintings were completed within 2 months of each another.
“ISLAND” (Knowles 12) is the result of several layers and many months of work. It began as a piece about crucifixion, then became a man floating at sea, until it finally transformed into the woman nearly submerged.
This one is about allowing myself to be enveloped by painting. For a while, I was considering other avenues. I had always painted, but was considering another vocation.
ISLAND – Knowles 12
“URCHIN” (Knowles 13) is a follow-up piece. This time, there is no victim or uncertainty, only a symbiotic relationship. Still dangerous though.
To be honest, this painting is still very fresh and I have not been able to wrap my mind around it completely.