Transformations: Recent Works by Richard Knafelc
The most recent body of work from Richard Knafelc lends itself to many avenues of investigation, and the artist welcomes multiple interpretations. However, the concept of transformation is central to his current practice and can be used as an incisive point of reflection by which to better understand his practice and this exhibition.
Knafelc transforms the technological into the human, the everyday into the iconic and the traditional genre of painting into something quietly subversive, as he blends the mundane with the spiritual and the aesthetic with the political. Here we encounter a new presentation of reality that demands comparison with our usual experience of the world, and it is within this comparison that possibilities, questions and the potential for new outlooks arise. Knafelc aims to make viewers re-evaluate social conventions, constraints and values.
Knafelc’s creative process is implicitly transformative. These paintings are reproductions of digitally manipulated photographs. The colours and tones of the images have been reversed digitally in order to produce a negative effect and to invert the natural spectrum.1 The practice of figurative painting is also a transformative act, as reality is processed through the eye and hand of the artist. Knafelc’s practice is therefore doubly complex as the final images are the result of a series of perceptual and technological transformations.
The technique of combining photography and painting is well established, and one of the most important strategies used by painters in order to re-energise the genre in the face of continued statements of its obsolescence. For close to 200 years, painting has undergone a succession of deaths and rebirths, within which photography has often been noted as the biggest enemy of all. Knafelc joins the ranks of artists such as Chuck Close, Gerhard Richter and Richard Hamilton, to name but a pre-eminent few, who have incorporated, if not subsumed, photography within their practice. Painting has been forced to transform, visually and certainly on a level of theory and investigation, in order to remain relevant and critically engaged.
As a painter, Knafelc is highly aware of the long lineage of history and tradition to which his practice is subject. He relishes the painterly effect that comes with his free-hand transferal of the digital images, because it highlights the presence of the human mind and hand; this is the privilege of painting as a genre. However, painting comes with an overbearing accumulation of problems that must be addressed; “One perennial theme ... is the question of whether and how social constraints ... can be negotiated at all with oil or acrylic”.
Social constraints, including the ethical and the political, are subtly, poignantly and sometimes humorously handled within this exhibition. The gentle way that Knafelc addresses such concerns perhaps suggests that he is aware of the limitations of painting to be an agent for social change. His messages act at a more personal level, he appeals to our inherent ability to question our own perceptions of reality and our own values related to freedom, materialism and the environment. These works are a catalyst to social change through a transformation of thought patterns.
Perhaps the most psychologically disturbing work in the exhibition is Surveillance image, an icy, impersonal scene of an intimate group within a public space. As a society, our personal information and movements are increasingly being observed and recorded through various systems. This work asks viewers to confront and question this situation; what are the implications for our freedom and why do we require such scrutiny? This image is also interesting in that it is a painted image of a digitally manipulated photograph that is masquerading as a still from CCTV camera footage. The boundaries of authenticity and direct expression are being pushed within this process of reproduction. Again the concept of transformation is key, both in the making and in the content of the work; the concern lies in how our own images, or identities, may become transformed within such surveillance systems.
Surveillance image, 2014, oil on linen, 66 x 91.5 cm
Mystic portals glorifies the mundane scene of two ATMs. They are promoted to objects of intense spiritual and visual power, which is heightened by the double-image effect. In an ironic twist with the title, this work laments the loss of spiritual values in the face of increasing materialism. The idea of portals suggests doorways into other worlds, and in some respects money can facilitate a deliverance of kinds, related to our dreams and hopes of happiness. However, the over-exaggerated beauty of these machines underscores the misplaced or misguided power assigned to them within the illusory end-game of capitalism.
Mystic portals, 2014, oil on linen, 84 x 122 cm
The sense that monetary wealth can only provide a shallow and short-lived sense of gratification is also addressed in Happiness without end. The sarcasm of the title, grounded in the often-noted tenet that the joy of material gain is only fleeting, is reinforced by the heavenly ascension into a shopping mall depicted in this work. Though the image has a sense of resplendence, complete with its nod to the utopian ideals of modernist architecture, Knafelc has still managed to capture an underlying sadness; the faces are blank and the colours are relatively muted.
Happiness without end, 2014, oil on linen, 61 x 91.5 cm
The critique of consumerism continues in Idol and Running on empty. There is a dark and intelligent humour that sits within the tension formed between the works’ titles and the content of the images. They are complex, but their execution lends a sense of security to the viewer, we are in safe hands, Knafelc’s meticulous technique allows us to enjoy the work in itself, both before and after the realisation of his work’s social agitation and political dissention.
A crucial aspect to the effectiveness of Knafelc’s work, and its success from an aesthetic perspective, lies in his use of colour. The artist’s studio is filled with natural light, and colour is used very deliberately and precisely to create the works’ various atmospheric qualities, reaching a height in The blue room. By inverting the colours digitally, Knafelc aims to address the contingencies of perceptual experience; colour is relative; “colour is a fiction of light ... just a reflection”. Knafelc’s methodical transformation of colour is therefore part of the artist’s strategy to inspire us to see the world with fresh eyes, to re-evaluate accepted notions of reality and to affect a transformation in our thinking that can be extended to social issues.
The blue room, 2014, oil on linen, 66 x 91.5 cm
These works remind us to reassess our perception of the world, on a visual level and in terms of our values. They are not impassioned or overtly emotional, they are measured, controlled, balanced and strangely beautiful. They are quiet despite their vibrant colours and they maintain a dignity that suits their subtle yet persistent mode of agitation. This body of work encourages us to remain curious about our lived experience, about which there is no end to the enquiry, only transformations in our understanding.
1 In some cases only the tones are reversed, as in What is more gentle than a wind in summer?
2 In 1839 the painter Paul Delaroche claimed that “From today, painting is dead!” on viewing a Daguerreotype photograph.
3 Amongst his artistic influences Knafelc lists Realism, French Impressionism, Velazquez, Van Dyck, Vermeer, Degas, Sickert, Sargent and Richter.
4 Graw, I. Classics of Modernism: Jutta Koether’s Treatment of Canonical Painters, 2006
5 Dean, T. Magic Hour, 2007
Myers, T.R. ed. Painting, ed. Whitechapel Gallery London, The MIT Press Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2011
Crimp, D. The End of Painting, October, no.16, 1981
Bachelor, D. ed. Colour, Whitechapel Gallery London, The MIT Press Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2008
Adriani, G. ed. Gerhard Richter Paintings from Private Collections, Stiftung Frieder Burda, 2008