Kris Knight: “Introverted daydreamer combining fantasy and reality to explore what it means to be human in this desperate time”

Dreamy, calming strokes of pastel hues shape the characters in artist Kris Knight’s breath-taking paintings. His work emphasizes the individuality of each of his subjects, allowing you to sense the intimacy expressed within the portrait, as Knight often personally knows each person he is painting. Although most of his subjects are looking away from the viewer, closeness is still felt, inviting us to examine the composition further. There is a hint of ambiguity personified not only in each facial expression, but also in the often indistinct spaces encompassing each character. These elements, combined with closely cropped subjects, pull the viewer in, leaving us filled with the same feeling of affinity and stillness conveyed in his paintings. 

Currently living and working in Toronto, Canada, Kris Knight has shown his entrancing paintings internationally in cities like Paris, New York, Amsterdam and Brussels. Join us in conversation as Knight discusses with us his pivotal moment as an artist, his fascination with 18th century portraiture and how his mother’s baking has influenced his painting palette.

AMM: Where did your interest in art come from? Did you always want to be an artist?

KK: One of my first childhood memories is that of parents’ excitement when they discovered that I had some drawing skills at very young age. I remember the pride in their voices and I had a desire to keep drawing from that point on. Some kids are into sports, or horses or action figures. I was into drawing and painting, so most of my birthday and Christmas presents were art related; in a way I was groomed to be an artist simply because it was easy gift giving. Another reason why I’ve always been interested in art is because I am a shy, quiet person, who as a kid would much rather draw on the floor than go out and play with others.

AMM: Tell us a bit about your creative process. Does your work involve much preliminary planning or do you tend to experiment on the canvas?

KK: I am a constant daydreamer, always in my head, and most of my ideas click when I am walking to and from my Toronto studio each morning and late at night. 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.

My paintings are a combination of reality and fantasy. I start each painting off with a sketch or collaged image before I paint on canvas. The majority of my characters are based on real people, mostly friends or acquaintances, but sometimes-collaged references culled from romanticism, fashion, porn, mug shots, 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 are usually a toss away because of my own awkwardness. I often project this nervousness onto my sitter; it takes some time before we are both relaxed and the positioning isn’t so static, sometimes it doesn’t happen and my paintings have a nervous tension to them that we simply couldn’t overcome.

AMM: Color and pattern seem to be two essential elements in creating your compositions. Where do you find inspiration for these specific aspects of your work?

KK: I usually know what I am going to paint in terms of the figure but everything else (colour combinations, patterns) is made up as I am painting. I get most of my colour and pattern inspiration from historical paintings and textiles but my tendency for pastel colours comes from growing up in my mother’s bakery and learning to tint icing (adding colour to a white base) — which is essentially how I mix colours on my palette.

AMM: You’ve mentioned the influence of 18th Century French portraiture and Polaroid film on your work. Besides being two different mediums, both have very particular aesthetics that are significantly different to one another. What aspects of these two areas of art do you draw inspiration from?

KK: I find the 18th Century in French art to be really inspiring in colour as well as content. Besides the obvious pastel boom there was a greater emphasis on the individual. I am greatly influenced by the 18th century movements like Romanticism, Sturm und Drang, Rococo and Fete Galante 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 private, 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.

My paintings are always brightly lit because I want it to be obvious that I photograph my sitters – no one has posed for me for forty hours in my studio. I always leave the hot spot of flash photography in my paintings because even though I paint in a technique that is historically linked to the past,
I want my paintings to feel as if they were aided by the technology of the now.

AMM: There is a strong element of androgyny present in your body of work. Is this an aesthetic choice or does it stem from your personal interests and ideas? 

KK: 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, mood, atmosphere, and sex.

AMM: Tell us a bit about your thoughts on ‘the gaze’ and its role within your work.

KK: All of my narratives stem from my own personal stories even though I paint other people, often painting men who are wallflowers, who are happy with being a wallflower. They seek comfort in their shadows but sometimes the shadows take over. These young men surround themselves with beauty as a means to deflect attention, and desire to look and yearn to be noticed. They create illusions for themselves and use their imaginations to find magic in the tedium of everyday life.

When I switched from painting mostly women to painting mostly men, I felt more in sync emotionally to the work that I was creating and I also noticed a bigger connection to my work externally. My paintings have always been autobiographical even when I was painting women, but I think this shift to painting men allowed me to really convey the emotions that come up internally while I paint and the nervous energy that I have projected onto my models. The canon of figurative paintings overflows with a heterosexual gaze — I am a gay man who paints other gay men; in a way it’s a political statement because I have the freedom to do so and it’s a new freedom that I don’t take for granted.

AMM: Your interest in dichotomies can be seen in your palette choices, as you often include contrasting warm and cool colors in a composition, fluctuating the mood of the painting. What is it about opposing components that interest you?

KK: I take pleasure in transformations and dichotomies — my paintings look quiet and consistent but they are open-ended, highly staged but ambiguous, theatrical and personal and lend themselves to conflicting moods.
I know what I like and don’t like in painting but I’m still very curious when it comes to exploring the private and public self in my work.

AMM: Your subjects are often looking away or having their back to the viewer, sometimes hiding their identity entirely. Can you tell us a bit about the sense of isolation that comes from this detail?

KK: There’s a solemnness that exudes when the figure is isolated in a painting that I prefer. I want my paintings to feel simultaneously intimate and remote. I believe there are many ways to capture a portrait without relying directly on the face.

AMM: There is a sincerity that can be felt in the intimacy of your portraits, as if the viewer is seeing a side of the person that not many get to see. Does this air of understanding come from a personal relationship with your subjects?

KK: I’m trying to explore what it means to be human right now in such a desperate time. We hide our failures and use social media to yell out our successes to friends and strangers and it’s hard to decipher what is real from what is fake. My work combines romanticism with nostalgia because it’s my personal escapism but I also focus on the portrait in an attempt to reveal some sort of intimate truth.

AMM: What would you say was a defining moment for you as an artist — whether it be artistically or professionally?

KK: In the last decade of exhibiting my work as a professional artist I’ve had a lot of ups and downs, but I think the defining moment was when I started to think of a career in art in terms of longevity and not success. Art is a risky, unregulated business that focuses so much on youth and trend and it’s hard to not get burnt out or get pressured by external voices. I try to focus on producing and creating bodies of works that I see as chapters in a very long book rather than putting so much pressure on the now — I’m less disappointed this way.

AMM: What direction do you envision your artwork going next?

KK: A lot of my new work revolves around the notion of everyday performance: the roles we play, the work we do, the faces we put on and the things we act out to go get us from A to B — especially in a culture like today’s, where everyone seems so desperate to please, deny and pretend. I often use theatre as a way to examine what’s actuality from what is merely staged and what happens when these lines are blurred. I’ve always been a quiet and shy person who prefers to look rather than be seen, so I am envious of those who can get up on stage and command an audience. Many of my paintings focus on the performer without an audience or the failed performer — and how they act when they don’t have a spotlight to shine in. My new work focuses on theatrically in both a literal and metaphorical sense and I am excited to show these pieces in my future exhibitions.

Find out more about the artist:

Interview by Christina Nafziger for ArtMaze Mag.

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