Studio Visit: Clive Knights, an Architecture of Fragments
A wide array of influences—literature, philosophy, and especially his professional background as an architect—merge to shape the collage works and monotype prints of Clive Knights. In Knights’ work, fragments of colors, textures and images become tactile gestures, creating spaces and narrative storylines that reflect the complexity of the human experience.
We visited Knights’ studio and newly designed outdoor collage exhibition space “Fencework Gallery” in Portland, OR, and began a conversation about Knights’ work and thoughts on collage that continues with this interview.
AB: I was very excited to see your work in person and to be introduced to several new series in your studio. How are these a continuation of ideas you’ve been working with, and what new directions do these explore?
CK: One of the ways I work in series entails making several collages intended to be shown together, at the same time, as a way to explore narrative possibilities, introducing an episodic structure. They extend the capacity of diptychs and triptychs into groupings of usually 5 or 7 works, always an odd number so the classic symmetry of a story as ‘beginning-middle-end’ is maintained. I’ll typically start them all at the same time laid out in my studio and constantly move from one to the other, introducing the characters (paper fragments) to each other as unanticipated scenarios emerge, discovering themes and relationships rather than imposing them. It’s somewhat of a truism to say that story-telling has always been a primary form of human creativity, but nevertheless, embracing the arc of a story, even if not explicit but discovered in the clandestine relationships that emerge as one moves from the first collage through the series to the last, remains one of potential catharsis, that special experience of release from the mundane expediencies of everyday experience that stories offer. The real challenge, though, is to articulate narrative within a single work, as painters, for example, used to be able to do before the stultifying prioritization of sight kicked-in around the 18th century and then later the desire for instantaneity in the experience of painting as something that moves you all at once, as opposed to drawing you into a web of stories embroiled in the imagery that demand some effort from the viewer to engage and interpret.
Another manner in which I create a series involves the intermittent contribution of collages made at different times but which, by virtue of their finished state, gather into specific, loose, but preordained thematic groupings. I have several of these underway and they have no endpoint in sight, so each series will grow indefinitely. For instance, ‘Fragments from The Itinerant’s Map of Utopia’ is a Borges inspired idea of a fragmentary mapping of the world, partly encountered and recorded and partly imagined, by a perpetual traveler unable to rest until all the pieces of the ‘jigsaw of the good life’ are discovered and fitted in place, a futile but necessary existential endeavor. Perhaps this is the predicament of the collagist writ large. Another series is titled ‘The Autochthonous City’ and explores the emergence of new topographies where the sectional cut through an imagined terrain reveals content both below (in the earth) and above (towards the sky) the horizon line of the implied surface. These collages address the relationship between what is given by, and arises from, the world we inhabit and what humans contribute through modification, addition, destruction and so on. It’s also a way to thematize the idea that the collage in-process is giving birth to a nascent landscape, albeit one made with fragments drawn from an existing world. The act of reinvigorating matter that is otherwise considered spent, used-up, I find fascinating. All new life emerges from the nourishment that’s returned to the earth by the dead. This cycle is primordial.
AB:I was first introduced to your collage and printmaking work several years ago, and was very interested to learn soon after about your professional background as an architect and professor of architecture. Can you share how architectural concepts and philosophies have influenced your work with collage and printmaking?
CK: I often reference the German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer who says that “architecture gives shape to space” and everything contained within it, including all the other arts. In other words, how the arts are made available to a community is invariably configured by the artfulness of architecture framing the setting for that encounter. As such, architecture’s role is profound in configuring the agenda for art experience, or as is most often the case in the contemporary setting, relinquishing that responsibility for the sake of technological expediency or self-referential displays of superficial novelty. I came through a fairly typical modernist architectural education to discover that the profound questions concerning what it is to be human are left unaddressed, as if irrelevant to such a serious-minded and professional business as making buildings. The established modes of architectural representation in orthographic (plan, section, elevation, axonometric) and perspective drawing are too limiting to promote the exploratory, creative phase of a project. As means of establishing control and minimizing ambiguity, which they are very good at, they are nevertheless incapable of representing the full experiential depth of bodily experience: passage, tactility, chiaroscuro, sense of scale, perceptual depth (foreground, middle-ground, background), peripheral vision, atmosphere, materiality and so on. These intrinsic characteristics of human experience demand experimentation with alternative media, in particular, those where risk and ambiguity are welcomed as positive attributes in materializing representational possibilities, and where synesthetic potential can be exploited (touching color, seeing texture and so on). Early in my architectural career I researched the symbolism of ancient Roman houses at Pompeii and accompanied the text with a series of collage studies that seemed to be the most effective visual means of representing content that was metaphoric, multi-valent and decidedly not literal.
My print-making often explores sectional conditions, as if cutting vertically down through the earth like archeological stratigraphy, revealing a subterranean world of buried sediments penetrated by shafts and cavities, supporting the seemingly more ephemeral surface extrusions and efflorescences.
In a way architecture is the gathering and joining of diverse materials that already exist in the world, and as such, collage may be its sibling. In another sense, buildings press their footprint on the surface of the earth, such that print-making, too, is perhaps its sibling. Importantly, all my work aims to gesture beyond itself to the inexhaustible worldly context from which it draws meaning, from the tiniest print or collage to the full-scale music festival structures I’ve collaborated on with others. No work of art should ever be self-referential, this can only lead to solipsism and irrelevance.
AB: In your recent essay, “Fragmentary Gestures Towards the Invisible,” you describe collage as a collaboration or conversation between an artist and their paper fragments. That being the case, how do you set-up or organize your materials to facilitate these interactions?
CK: Tray upon tray of paper fragments are laid out on several horizontal work surfaces, most of which are the offspring of previous cutting and ripping. About a year ago these were color-sorted or theme-sorted, but have since merged into quite an unsorted melee. Every so often I’ll execute a themed search through the plethora of used books I have stacked under the work tables and tear out a batch of common images, such as scientific diagrams, black ink-line illustrations, horizon lines, gesturing figures, intriguing textures and so on. At other times I’ll pull new content entirely from a single illustrated book to allow its unique visual style to influence a number of ensuing works when combined, inevitably, with fragments from the trays crying out with deafening silence their unrelenting request to participate in the burgeoning collage. The solicitation of these fragments upon the sensibility of the collage maker can only happen if they are laid bare, exposed to the creative act in process, within reach of the summoning arms-length, emanating their magnetic pull and jostling for attention as constituents of a crowd of hopeful strangers. To make a collage is an act of hospitality to these strangers, introducing them to each other and enabling them to contribute to the visual, material and thematic conversation that they strike up in the confines of the ‘room’ that is the base sheet. I try to participate as a facilitator more than a director, a participant more than a leader. I perform acts of listening, I channel the calls and the responses, like the speaker of the house in a parliament. There is a compelling line of inquiring that links narrative to hospitality articulated over several decades by the contemporary Irish philosopher Richard Kearney. Welcoming the stranger sits at the root of human ethical action, and has its analogue in metaphor where seemingly different entities when brought together elicit a recognition of deep similarity. It is sustaining the fluctuation of such likenesses that, I think, defines the creative act.
AB: How does your sketch/collage book figure into your process?
CK: My ongoing graphic journal is my yoga mat, a place for stretching and limbering-up my collage-making muscles. If I was a singer, I’d be warming up my vocal chords there. I tell my architecture students that they must keep a graphic journal, that it’s a place of freedom second only to the one inside their head. Anything can happen there and nobody will care, so long as something is happening there, as it maintains a healthy imagination. I fill a page or three every day, sometimes more, even if I’m working on a specific project for an exhibition call, or one of my ongoing series. It’s actually where the fragments are able to speak loudest, because I’m least concerned about theme or subject matter. I let the fragments loose in the journal. I am less discriminating so that they can be more so. If the conversation of fragments on one page peters out, I’ll turn the page so others can strike up a new one. Dimension is fascinating and I’ve filled tiny 2”x 3” journals, 4”, 7”, 8” and 11.5” square journals. Each size offers different possibilities. I prefer a square format so orientation is more fluid, and I’ll often hang a collage or post it on Instagram a different way up to the way it was made.
AB: Your studio building is a beautifully designed space. Its shape has even made appearances in several of your works. How do you conceive of the role and function of the artist’s studio?
CK: Thank you! My current studio is a free-standing, two-story, purpose-designed building next to my home in Portland, Oregon, that was built about 12 years ago. Downstairs is a workshop and upstairs is a tall attic studio space. It is my ‘axis mundi’, the navel of my world, an omphalos. I call it ‘corpus animus’ (I don’t have any pets so I’ve allowed myself the liberty of naming a building ), a breathing body, a spirited dwelling place, a temporary anchoring en route through life, a habitable threshold betwixt here and there, between now and then. Over the many years I’ve inhabited the studio I have continued to represent it in new monotype prints and collages, each a likeness that reinvigorates its meaning over time, reprojects its gestures across terrain. A simple, steeply double-pitched structure, its two west-facing front windows, one horizontal and the other vertical, imitate the visible western horizon and the disposition and dimension of my upright body, respectively. A south-facing skylight high up lets the transient sun mark time across the interior surfaces with its projected trapezoid of shifting light, in contrast to the constancy of three low level skylights set in the north-facing roof plane. Morning sun penetrates an east-facing window and lights up the flight of stairs leading up to the studio, while evening sun entering through the tall vertical western window projects a wide streak of light across the floor pointing to the top of the stair, when it’s time to go home. I could say more but for brevity’s sake will leave it at that. I fully appreciate what a privilege it is for me to have designed and built the place in which I practice my art. Nonetheless, I would echo Peter Brook’s comment about theatre requiring no more than an empty space across which somebody walks while somebody else is watching, in reference to collage as needing nothing more than an empty page upon which a paper fragment is placed for someone else to see.
AB: In your studio, we discussed the limitations of abstract vs representational as the primary classifications for a work of art, as these categories may seem arbitrary and don’t speak at all to a work’s function or effect. In your “Fragmentary Gestures” essay, you discuss alternative characterizations of collage works: collage as song, theatre or poem. Can you expand upon these ideas? Which categorization do you feel best describes your work?
CK: I mention these analogies with other art forms as a way of breaking open the limiting definition of collage as merely another form of visual art, and not a hugely respected one at that, by the typical standards of the contemporary art world. It is obvious that poetry, theatre and song all predate the rarified evaluative criteria of the art connoisseur since they emerged, and continue to do so, directly from the creative core of any human being regardless of education, training or misguided notions of talent. Along with dance (a kind of theatre) all three have origins deeply rooted in emergent human cultures from prehistory on. Poetry (initially oral, like song) takes elements of an existing familiar communicative medium (language) and rearranges them in unfamiliar ways. Theatre, as the art of make believe, takes one human body (actor) and makes us see it as another. Song (lyric-free) presents us with the raw musicality of the animate body, a concrete representation of feeling, corporeal immanence, tactility, eroticism. It is the analogy of song that is perhaps closest to my own recent endeavors in collage-making; to muster concrete qualities through the choreography of textures, tones, colors, layers, tactile gestures offered up by a chorus of fragments in which I, the artist, am but one contributing voice. Here, the artist’s body, mine in this case, is but one participatory component in the common ‘flesh’ of the world, as the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty proposes, and the work of art is an event and an exposition of this carnal collaboration.
AB: How do you envision the role of the collage maker vs the collage viewer? What expectations do you have for viewers of your work? Is there a continuation of the idea of collaboration and conversation?
CK: We have become lazy consumers of visual immediacy, a spurious form of pleasure-seeking. Much of the rest of our body has been numbed to concrete experience, only to be shocked out of such paralysis by the mechanical jolt of the amusement park ride or the temporary sensory thrill of extreme sports. I love art museums because they contain an immensely valuable cultural record, art works, but I despise art museums for irradicating context from our experience of the work that they coddle. For most art museum visitors (and I’m guilty of this myself) ‘strolling’ has become synonymous with ‘scrolling’ past one instant visual stimulus to the next until we arrive at the café and the bookshop, and then we’re done. We must recall that for the vast majority of the history of human culture, and still for many contemporary cultures, art making unfolds and remains in the everyday lived world of a community, rather than incarcerated in the museum. If artists predominantly make work for this current form of expedient ‘art’ fix then we exacerbate what I think is a problem, the loss of multi-valent work that demands the interpretive attention and creative effort of the viewer, where their sensitivity, thoughtfulness and application to the life they lead is inspired and nourished by the depth and nuance of a work, a depth that keeps on giving. So, yes, I see collage as the closest analogue to sincere, inter-human conversation available in the visual art field.
AB: Tell us about your Fencework Gallery. How did the idea for this originate?
CK: Well, we needed a fence to close a 32 ft wide gap on our lot after demolishing an old garage on the north side of our house, facing west towards the street. In line with my thoughts about getting art out of the institution and back into everyday life (where it always used to be), combined with the growing wave, led by Kolaj Magazine, to generate greater exposure and increased standing for the genre, I thought an outward facing gallery in a neighborhood setting dedicated to collage could make a contribution, albeit modest and localized. During the pandemic I was also attracted to the idea of the gallery acting as a portal to bring the world into the neighborhood and so to open up horizons otherwise unavailable to a community in lock-down. The most recent show is a great example of beginning to accomplish this aim and resulted from an international open call devised in collaboration with the Pacific Northwest Collage Collective. From 250 submissions we were able to show a diverse selection of 24 collages from 11 countries, opening with an open-air community celebration on World Collage Day 2021.
We cannot show the actual work for reasons of security and Oregon weather, so instead we print the collages enlarged and in full-color on a rigid all-weather substrate.
AB: How do you hope that the idea of this gallery will evolve in the future?
CK: I hope to maintain a continuous series if exhibitions on a 2 or 3 month cycle, since the set up and preparation is quite time consuming. Currently, I have ideas for forthcoming shows that include architecture students’ use of collage as part of the design process, a show of adult collage collaborations with children, and a show of relief assemblages using materials that will noticeably transform in response to the sun and the rain over the time that they are exhibited.
I see the gallery in the same vein as the poetry plaques and tiny free book-sharing libraries you see on the edge of the sidewalks outside people’s homes in the neighborhoods, a small gift back to the community and an opportunity to spark conversation with friends, family, neighbors, and perhaps even a stranger or two along the way. If only two people meet for the first time beside the gallery, strike up a conversation about things that matter to them, and perhaps, even, become friends, then it will have made its mark and been worth the effort.