THE ROSY NOSE KNOWS
A Conversation with KRIS KNIGHT
By Lori Zimmer
Toronto-based artist Kris Knight paints deeply personal, haunting portraits. His sexuality and citizenship often come up when discussing his work, but there is much more there than just who he is. True, his androgynous characters–with their flawless skin and wispy mustaches–are meant to address sexuality and gender identity. And yes, his narratives–set in snowy forests and cabins–are flanked by plenty of the requisite fur coats and trim. But his characters are pallid and forlorn, and they look you dead in the eye. Recalling Manet’s Olympia, the historical notion of the “gaze” is broken, with a confronting or pleading stare. Each has the same cold, red nose–the artist’s own, a clever signature throughout his work. His characters are familiar; they are you, they are me, but the nose is his.
Knight’s work has been shown in Toronto at the Katharine Mulherin Gallery and Miami’s Scope Art Fair this past December. Knight’s first Los Angeles show, All Babes are Wolves, removed his rose cheeked characters from their settings, focusing only on the portrait and the gaze. I talked to Knight to find out if there was more to the man behind the “gay Canadian” paintings. There certainly is.
Lori Zimmer: Your pieces portray a character-based narrative. Are you the author of these narratives, or do you draw inspiration for literature, life, music, etc.?
Kris Knight: Evocative writers and lyricists always inspire me; I unapologetically nick lines for my painting’s titles, but my narratives are rooted in my own personal stories. Even though I mostly paint real people, I do see them as my characters and stage them within the narrative accordingly.
LZ: Your characters are pallid, gender-bending, and decidedly Canadian (or so you’ve said with all the fur and the snow). To me, they look like the kids I see everyday in my Brooklyn neighborhood. Is it important to you to have your pieces convey your sexuality and nationality? Or are you fine with (my) more anonymous interpretation?
KK: You are probably just seeing a lot of my friends who’ve become bored with Toronto and relocated to New York. But, in all sincerity, although I don’t think of the audience when I paint, I hope my paintings don’t dictate anything singular. I paint who I deem as northern simply because I paint the majority of my images during the winter months and I am inspired by winter, but my characters could be anyone. I reference a lot of what is deemed Canadiana because I think it’s funny. Urban Canadians hate Canadiana. We have such an indefinite understanding of nationalism here that I like to mix these references into my paintings simply because my characters are pretty ambiguous themselves.
LZ: In All Babes are Wolves, you’ve removed your characters from the narrative surrounding (formerly a forest, a cabin, etc.), and into a vapid studio setting. What was your inspiration for this?
KK: I haven’t shown in LA before, but I have been a big fan of the California art scene since I was a teenager. I wanted to introduce my work with my best foot forward. Instead of starting a new thematic based series, I decided to just keep it simple and focus on the portrait. This way I could really concentrate on the emotional impact of the physiognomy of these characters and not rely on specific theme to tell the story. Stripping away the narrative also allowed me to focus on the process of painting. All Babes Are Wolves are my loosest and most textured paintings I have done to date. There wasn’t a lot of time to do that show, so I really didn’t want to get consumed by layers. I think being driven by so much pressure to complete works on time allowed me have a bit more fun and loosen up with my brushstroke instead of hiding it.
LZ: I have to tell you, I think it is genius and admirable to give each of your characters your own nose as your signature. how did you come up with this idea?
KK: I’m pretty shy, and an irrepressible blusher to say the least. I started off painting my family and cousins because I was most comfortable with them posing for me. We all kind of look the same. I’m from the country.
I paint the same nose because I want these paintings to be solely my images in the end. I change my themes often and see my series as chapters; the characters I paint, though, remain aesthetically consistent. I’m also inspired by historical portrait painters who would secretly paint themselves or clandestine messages into their commissions. I think it’s badass.
LZ: You’ve said (and it is obvious) that you are inspired by historical painters, are there any contemporary painters that you admire?
KK: Of course, I love the paintings by Canadian artists like Shelly Adler, Janet Werner, Ray Caesar and Shary Boyle. I also am a huge fan of American illustrative artists like Sylvia Ji and Audrey Kawasaki. And I cannot forget my good friend, Barnaby Whitfield, who I will be collaborating with on a project this spring. I’m a very fortunate to have a lot friends who are artists whose work and work ethic I admire; I am always inspired by them most.
LZ: How do you work? Is your studio in your apartment, do you need to be removed from the work space?
KK: I work on deadline, and do see painting as a job because it pays the bills, so I work best when I have a place to go to and really seclude myself into the work. I have had a lot of shitty studios over the years, but now I have been fortunate enough to lease a space in a historic lithographing factory that has been converted into an arts building. It’s old and beautiful, and I think it’s haunted.
LZ: Are you continually painting, or do you focus on a body of work for a specific show/series?
KK: I’m always painting, but I am always on a deadline, whether it’s for an exhibition, art fair, or commission. For exhibitions, I prefer to map out a specific body of work just because I need to be really organized to make 10-15 paintings (that I like), and I usually have 4-6 months as a timeline to complete them in. I am pretty hard on my work and destroy about half of it with my silent temper tantrums. So, I need to be organized, because although I paint all the time, and produce a lot, in the end I’m not that efficient. Having a specific series for each show allows me to have more control over production; I know which sketch turns into which photo shoot, turns into which painting.
LZ: What are you listening to when you paint?
KK: I like to listen to a lot of vivid lyricist when I paint; I like songs that are more about story telling than having hooks. Lately I have been designating each studio day to a single musician or band and playing their full discography from beginning to end. Sometimes it makes sense, sometimes it doesn’t. Like today is Mazzy Star/Hope Sandoval day because I’m freezing in my studio and need some aural warmth. Yesterday was a Babes in Toyland/Katastrophy Wife day, and I was painting the prettiest, most delicate images I have ever painted to the aggressive, most raw albums that I own.
LZ: What if, as a child, you suffered a paralyzing disease that left your fingers working, but unable to grasp a paintbrush. What would you be doing now instead?
KK: I have worked in art galleries as well as restaurants for the majority of my life as a full time artist (by full time, I mean full time painting workload with 1-2 part time jobs on the go as well). I started working in restaurants at the age of fourteen and considered one day being a chef, because my grandfather was a chef in the navy and my mother is a baker. If I couldn’t hold a paintbrush, I probably couldn’t hold a pan so let’s cut that option out. I’d say an art dealer/curator, because I’m attracted to the way art functions in the public as well as in the market. And since I’ve been both a commercial dealer’s assistant and a public museum curator assistant, I know that my fingers would be fine because that’s where assistants come in.
Kris Knight is a Toronto-based artist. His rosy nose can be seen in all of his paintings.
Written by Lori Zimmer
Edited by Meaghan Coffey
Photography Courtesy by Jason Hudson
Design by Devon Pentz
Photography Courtesy of Kris Knight