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The Magic of Kris Knight: "I Never Get Tired of Painting the Face"

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Painted portraiture is almost a rarity these days. Sure, there are tons done in the abstract, but photo-realistic work done in a contemporary setting isn't at all common.

That exclusion isn't surprising, considering contemporary art has always had a problem embracing portraiture outside of photography. And at the turn of the century modern art proudly espoused a new way of thinking that moved away from centuries of work based on the classical.

Enter Kris Knight, the 34-year-old Toronto-based artist who has the Art Basel crowds buzzing with his solo exhibition, "Smell the Magic," presented by Spinello Projects and Gucci. The show, based firmly in a contemporary take on classical portraiture, has all of Knight's signatures: young men, dreamy pastels, and oozing sexuality. Knight fully embraces 18th-century aesthetics and applies them to his work. (If Knight had been born in the time of Marie Antoinette, he would most certainly have been the royal portrait painter.)

Cultist spoke with Knight about his 18th-century influence, his obsession with youth, and his color inspiration.

See also: Art Basel Miami Beach 2014 Local Gallery Guide

New Times: Your style seems to have so many influences, particularly 18th century styles like Romanticism, Sturm und Drang, and Rococo. Were those periods influential to you?

Kris Knight: I am greatly influenced by these movements because artists of this time placed such great emphasis on emotions and the fact that humans are emotionally complex individuals. These movements emphasized the individual, the personal, the irrational and the imaginative. I see these movements as the time when the "pretty" started to get weird and when the cracks started to show in art.

As an artist who mostly paints character portraits, I care most about creating a sense of ambiguity in my works. Each one of my series is stemmed from an autobiographical memory. I've always been inspired by folklore, myth, secrets and gossip and I see painting as a vehicle for my own storytelling. The narrative in my work is just as important as the painting itself. I like the fact that a painting can be interpreted on any level by anyone, but in the end I know the origin, the root of the painting.

With such a strong emphasis on portraiture, is there something in particular you are trying to convey to the viewer?

I see myself primarily as a storyteller who makes images -- all of the themes of my painting series often stem from something autobiographical. I need to have that authenticity of speaking from a mythology that is solely my own, even though I paint other people.

When I paint someone, I don't adhere to the historical notion of the portrait, where capturing likeness is paramount and pleasing the sitter or patron is the objective. For me, the sitter is a character that helps illustrate a narrative -- there's a lot more freedom when you remove the pressure of reproducing what already exists. Usually when I am painting a person, I start with a collage of images to create a composition but I often drop these blue prints half way through the painting, often changing the sitter's appearance with each layer of paint. I guess there's no real payoff for modeling for one of my paintings, but I do appreciate the blue prints.

Are the portraits of real people or fantasy?

The majority of my characters are based on real people, mostly my close friends and family, but sometimes-collaged images culled from mass media, self-portraits, as well as my imagination. Over the years I have managed to convince a small group of friends to pose for me for every series; their likeness may change in each painting because I am too lazy to seek out new subjects, but also because it's taken me years to achieve a level of comfort and trust with these subjects.

When I invite new friends to come pose for me in the studio, the first session of photos and sketches is usually a toss away because of the fact that I am awkward and shy, and I often project this nervousness onto my sitter -- it takes awhile before we are both relaxed and the stiffness settles, sometimes it doesn't happen and my paintings have a nervous tension to them that we simply couldn't overcome.

Your subjects have mostly been young men or, at the very least, androgynous men showing pangs of vulnerability and eroticism often ascribed as feminine traits. Is there something to be said about men expressing their sexuality in a non-heteronormativity way?

I think sexuality is individual and multifaceted and I think the media has caught on to this over the past two decades -- sexuality can be expressed in a palette of hues that aren't just black and white, or even the greys that we have become comfortable with. I'm fascinated with the complexity of physiognomy and never get bored with painting the figure. I focus on the portrait because I'm interested in the gaze, as well as portraying the subtleties of the face. When I first started painting professionally, I was interested in androgyny in terms of gender; now I am more interested in creating neutrality and ambiguity in regards to moods. I like tiptoeing between dichotomies of hot and cold, especially in facial expression, atmosphere, palette, and sex. Sometimes I want my characters to appear as virginal as possible, other times I want them to appear overtly ostentatious in their sexuality but most of the time I want them to fit right in between.

Is there a reason the men and women in your paintings are always youthful?

There are a couple of reasons why I focus on youth -- the obvious being that for the last decade I've painted the people around me who are around the same age as me. I choose to paint these people because they know me well enough to let their guards down, so I employ them in my paintings as much as possible. As we get older, they will appear older in my paintings as well.

The second reason for why I paint youthful looking adults is my fascination with youth decay and Peter Pan Syndrome -- of holding on to one's youth. Our society focuses so much on youth as the pinnacle of beauty that we become poisoned by the obsession of preserving what is naturally fleeting.

I'm a huge history nerd and have had an obsession with the French Revolution since I was a kid. I love the ghostly look of 18th Century Western portraiture because of the heavy white powder make-up that was in vogue at the time. I often mute the skin tones of my palette so that the characters of my paintings appear powdered and slightly translucent. I'm fascinated by this historical act of concealment, to look porcelain without imperfection (because tans meant you were common, a laborer, for example, or your skin was aging), but we now know that this white lead-based make-up was toxic, slowly poisoning the people wearing it. I think whenever anyone performs a front of perfection it always fails in the end. Beauty is powerful and tragic, it declines as we decay but we never stop at trying to preserve it.

Perhaps the most powerful trait of your work is your subjects' eyes. Even if they are looking away, they seem to be telling a story. What do the eyes say that words can't always convey?

I am fascinated by stories and secrets and this informs my work. Our eyes communicate so much nonverbal information that as a portrait painter, I find the notion of gaze to be so vast and endlessly inspiring. I never get tired of painting the face. It's the only thing that I wanted to draw as a kid and continues to be the main thing that I want to paint as an adult.

Sexuality, homoeroticism, androgyny -- really, the whole emphasis on gender and its fluidity is particularly a hot topic nowadays, which seems to only amplify the importance of your work. Have you always been interested in these topics?

I think my interest in androgyny stems from looking and sounding quite feminine as a kid growing up in the country. I matured out of this stage in my later teens, but I can still remember the confusion others had (and how angry people got) when gender is blurred. My first series of works dealt with androgyny and gender neutrality because I rarely saw it portrayed from a rural perspective. Today my interest in neutrality goes beyond gender as I am much more interested in conveying ambiguity in terms of physiognomy, atmosphere, and sex. I create mythical and ambiguous character paintings that are a synthesis of fantasy and real-world memory, that tiptoe between the dichotomies of pretty and menace, hunter and hunted, innocence and the erotic. I like ambiguity and confusion in the softest statements.

Beyond subject matter, color is perhaps your other defining trait. Where does your color inspiration come from?

I like to use soft colors to create somewhat dark and sensual paintings without relying on the typical dark colors historically associated with these notions.

I'm really inspired by the softer palette historically found in neoclassical portraiture, especially French 17th century portraiture. I'm drawn to the pastels and the ghostly skin tones found in the work of Joseph Ducreux and Louise Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun. There is something both luscious and deadening about their palettes that I hope translates in my work as well.

I like to think of my palette as a 17th century French chateaux that was left to rot. I'm obsessed with pastels but my palette needs to have a contradicting element of haze and murkiness to it as well. My palette starts off in the morning looking like a buttery baker's dream, but ends up looking pretty gloomy by the end of the day. I should probably mention that I am the son of a baker and began tinting icing long before color wheels, palette knives or fabric swatches came into my life.

"Smell the Magic's" color palette might be your brightest yet, almost dabbling into warm tropical colors. Is that what you were aiming for?

I'm drawn to using a pastel palette as a way to convey darker emotions in my work -- I want my paintings to seem airy and dense, warm and cool at the same time. Lately I have been playing with the juxtaposition of cool pastels with bright pinks and reds that create an almost neon effect, even though I am not using neon. Of course, knowing that I would be showing this body of work in Miami inspired me to dabble with some brighter colors -- some of my new paintings are deliberately tropical but in an awkward "northerner's first day in the tropics" kind of way.

Gucci's fall men's collection drew inspiration from your work, and now they are sponsoring your exhibit here in Miami. How has it been working with them? Where do art and fashion meet?

In January 2014, the media notified me that my painting's pastel palette was listed as a color inspiration for Gucci's men's ready-to-wear fall/winter 2014 collection. I'm based in Canada and had been doing a lot interviews and portfolios in European indie fashion/art magazines, but had I never imagined that my work was being noticed. It was a huge surprise and honor to have been credited by such an iconic fashion house when they really didn't have to. A month later I was invited by Gucci to go to Rome to meet Frida Giannini and her team and that's when our collaborations began.

Naturally, I was extremely intimidated and I didn't sleep for days leading up to my time in Rome; however, when I met Frida and her team, I was instantly at ease and inspired. The design headquarters had an energy to it that was palpable and I couldn't wait to get back to Canada and start working. I had an instant chemistry with the designers and I realized just how fortunate I was to be there and the friendships I have made.

I've always been inspired by fashion and historical costumes and utilizes these costumes in my work often, giving my character a sense of romance even when it doesn't always make sense contextually. When I was young I would look at fashion magazines and dissect the poses and compositions that were often modeled off of historical paintings. I'd try to figure which artist the art director or photographer was inspired by. I'm drawn to the constant orbit of inspiration that art has with fashion and fashion has with art.

Kris Knight, "Smell the Magic." December 1 through December 15. Spinello Projects Pop-Up, 95 NE 40th St., Miami. Call 786-271-4223 or visit spinelloprojects.com.

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