Christopher Knowles in Two Acts
The departure point of Christopher Knowles’s first solo show at Bridget Donahue is a single red balloon, set against a yellowed sheet in landscape orientation and outlined with a red paint marker. It’s filled in with orderly up-and-down strokes that track neatly across its width. There’s plenty on view at the poet, performer and artist’s exhibition for new arrivals and those who have tracked his 50-year career alike.
First up in “Christopher Knowles in Two Acts” is, of course, “Act One”: a suite of never-shown marker drawings from the nineties, including sun-drenched family portraits, Top 20 pop chart lists and an “Announcer’s Test,” series—words typically spoken into a mic before the show begins. See, for instance, Top 21 of Thursday September 18th 1969 (1990), featuring the lyrics of such classics as the Archies’s “Sugar Sugar” and Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” rendered in colored marker.
Unusual visual emphasis and de-emphasis continues in his pictures of people. In both Skiing in Vermont drawings (1982 and 1983), for instance, large blocks of background are rendered in strong colors while the characters in the foreground are left paper white, a quirk of Knowles’s work that the gallery compelling refers to as “syncopation,” the musical emphasis on the weaker beat within a rhythm.
Knowles, who found his artistic beginning in downtown Manhattan during the 1970s, when the art scene was developing a specific brand of performance rooted in Minimalism, acknowledges both movements’ influences on his “Announcer’s Test” series, which spans a full wall of the exhibition. Nearly a century ago, announcers tests were developed during the advent of radio broadcasting to measure enunciation, memory and diction. Knowles’s riff on the tests, which typically include every letter of the alphabet, begins with one single hen and ends with “ten lyrical, spherical, diabolical denizens of the deep who all stall around the corner of the quo of the quay of the quivery, all at the same time.” Knowles’s imagining includes a round red bird, a human-esque figure in a red shirt and blue pants and eight other creatures who are near-impossible to encapsulate in words. Act Two, opening December 11, 2021, will reprise favored motifs—red balloons, handmade cards—along with a performance and party to which, the press release extends, “You are invited.” —Lisa Yin Zhang
Christopher Knowles, One red balloon, 1990. Paint marker on paper, 12 × 17 7/8 inches. Image courtesy Bridget Donahue, Photo: Gregory Carideo.