On Knowlton's Sculpture


Works of Art, in the closing decades of the twentieth century, confront a unique array of doubt—doubts driven by the problematic status of Art itself, and by the level of self-consciousness attributed to and associated with the conditions that surround it's making. There no longer exists, immune from doubt, an infrastructural cultural context of acceptance. Works of Art are now detached from any such. Now, they are submitted and received (or rejected) without the nurturing comfort of a consensus as to precisely what is what.


Every artist, alone or in alliance with others, now enters into a contest of premises. Each draws upon a motif index generated by an almost boundless spectrum of possibilities and permutations. Within this noise of targets there now appears a newly emergent exchange between Art and Nature. Either derived from natural forms or embedded in natural processes, this vein of interest taps the intrinsic, though subliminal, interconnection between these two domains of mind. Art shares with Nature a common teleology, a common sense of purpose, expressed originally, and perhaps most succinctly, by Aristotle: “We must explain then that Nature belongs to the class of causes which act for the sake of something.”


For the sake of something. What is this something? This question is asymptotic in the sense that we are always approaching but never arriving at its answer. Thus, the entire enterprise is awash in mystery. Works of Art which embrace this attitude are, in fact, celebrations of the mystery and thereby circumvent the senescent inertia which gathers around the open contest of premises.


Win Knowlton's recent work embodies this stance in a variety of ways and means. First of all, it engages a sensory continuum that begins in the bowels of the earth and culminates in an ascendant dispersion of signs referring to their return to chthonic origins, to subterranean sources. Second, they appear to contain elements of narrative structure without revealing any storytelling intention. And third, they employ a range of novel perceptual devices which pry open phenomenological issues concerning the act of viewing itself.


The spectrum of Knowlton's formal motifs originates in earth-compressed disc, spatulate, wedge and slab shapes. These modular entities are arranged and per-mutated throughout several works in the show. Cherry Hill Plates for example, consists of fifteen separate silhouetted slabs fluctuating in size and shape. They appear to be orchestrated and caught in a position of frozen rotation. Implying three distinct views, two frontal and one thin-edge of the wedge, Cherry Hill Plates induces the viewer to “read” either side of each slab as an arena of impacted turbulence. Plumes and deltas of color stream across the surfaces as if flowing from some preternatural impulse. A conflict between nature and shards of human artifact unfolds as the viewer shifts position to the vertical grouping of edges. The perception of the edge indicates a transition from one frontal state to another. Thus, a sense of narration is created, although it is a perforated narrative without a conclusion or catharsis. It is as if a retelling of some aspect of tribal history were suspended in space. The fifteen pairs of frontal states, each with its distinct combinatory interior, function as individual events separated from each other by intervals of brief but sufficient distance. The appearance of color is quick, epigrammatic, ethereal. Color transforms the surfaces into ciphers which simultaneously divulge and conceal the web of associations both within and external to their boundaries. Terra Firma embodies another of the core formal motifs, the planar extension. Here, a horizontal slab is supported by stacks of discs, implying a topological view from above. One peers down upon a mottled, granulating terrain of indefinite scale whose boundaries indicate the natural limits of the process by which it was made. That is, its boundaries do not appear to be arbitrary, designed or calculated, while the chthonic issue of it's being forced up from the bowels of the earth is manifest.


Terra Firma, like Cherry Hill Plates, evokes attributes of some unknown existential plenitude by way of hauling its own past, or origins, into its present. That is, it maintains or does not lose the historical tracings of its own making. This condition engulfs the experience of the work in a poignant ambiguity. The high density of visual incident saturates these surfaces (whether exposed or hidden) thereby re-enforcing the peculiar sensation of mystery. Contours establish the extension of these surfaces which in turn corral the swarm of textural differences while inviting multiple interpretations of container/contained.


The viewer develops an irresistible hunch that all components comprising each work are derived from archaeological fragments. A contemporary roadside archaeology, at that. Parts stemming from disparate sources are regrouped into fresh ensembles revealing unanticipated connections. This is the method of a dexterous bricoleur, reinforcing sympathetic transference. That is, residing in its present state is a resonance, the reverberating echo, of how it was made, of a persistent vestigial memory. Earth, soil or grit, as the irreducible datum, thus brings into the flavor of its present conditions a former, more fluid, state of existence.


Cherry Hill Plates and Terra Firma break prior icons and represent cataclysmic arrangements, such that something of the original iconic power is retained by the broken parts, in the fragments themselves. This is reinforced in the absence of a specifically rooted scale. Internal proportions emerge as expressions within the ratios among fragmentary parts, without an overarching, inclusive indication of magnitude—panoramic views are rendered small or the magnification of a tiny event spills over and dominates the field of vision. The viewer's eye/mind rides the recombinations as if free of any gravitational reference.


The impress of metonymy is at work here. Like chips off the old block, colligated shards and scraps double-bind together and subsume distant, isolated events. Oscillating between the non-arbitrary and the unpredictable, these events (forms) convert a private, idiosyncratic meaning into formal, codified communications. They instill a sense of “recall,” reminiscent of Heidegger's andenkendes Denken ("a thinking that recalls"), that conjures up memories and feelings of a manifold variety of things concerning a shared history or a collective myth latent with many possible outcomes.


Under Monument Mountain seems to contract and coil like a shell around a kernel. Its bent, enfolded pendulum appears to have been expelled and severed from a prior meaningful function, while the residue of that function lingers in the here and now. What use, one asks, endowed this object with a purpose? From what possible rational structure did it derive its internal order? These discrepancies emerge from the contrast of possible (probable)? past function with its present dysfunctional fragmentary condition. This isolates the object within an aesthetic surround that sets free associations as to the possible cause shaping its fate.


The Fury, Primitive Mass and Ugly Beauty all imply similar polyvalent causes and overlapping layers of an old order thrust anew upon the world. Each gives evidence of belonging to the same system as the others, opening up the possible reading that they represent different elements of the same edifice: a gaggle of severed arteries flailing about, or an apparently overturned tablature supported by that which it previously supported, or a cranky and wayward double-headed Pegasus struggling to upright itself against almost comic odds. In every case, forms that would ordinarily imply decay or stagnation are converted into an unlikely equipoise. Both in the aesthetic and cognitive sense, they intensify our feeling for the world's fragility and resilience. In being made acutely aware of the physical quality of surfaces, the viewer is ipso facto informed about an attribute of the world too often ignored. Abstraction and reductive calculation have led industrial civilization into a cul de sac of narcissistic self-absorption. By throwing us back into the stuff of the world this work serves as an antidote to an overly calculative rationalism.


Thus, Knowlton's motif index plays out the myriad variations of a vision inscribed with certain forebodings. The sculptural syntax fusing it all of a piece has its precursors in the work of Smithson and perhaps Art Povera. But this body of work reignites the spectacle of a world threatened by the toxins of its own self-abuse in a way that pours fresh sense into spent terms. Not unlike Wordsworth’s “Leech Gatherer,” situated in an apparently putrescent and cauterized landscape, Knowlton's recent oeuvre shares company with the gatherer's infinite patience in drawing out and uncovering dormant, transcendent and unexpected forms. The act of casting in the earth is in itself a gesture countering obstinate notions of control and determination over natural forces. Consequently, the “pathetic fallacy” of projecting human motives and desires onto nature (with all of its subsequent mistaken obsessions concerning human influence over nature) is met with a counterstatement of terrestrial embrace—the necessary strategy of the moment.


Frank Gillette

1990 / New York City