Essay on Stardust Exhibition (2016) by Ashley Crawford:
“Whereas the beautiful is limited, the sublime is limitless, so that the mind in the presence of the sublime, attempting to imagine what it cannot, has pain in the failure but pleasure in contemplating the immensity of the attempt”
– Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement
Since the birth of conscious human thought, homo sapiens have gazed at the stars with wanton wonderment. The mystery they inspire has led to religions, rituals and largely irrational fears. Entire cultures such as the Aztecs and the Australian indigenous have relied on the wisdom they supposedly impart to create structures for both their waking and their sleeping cultures. In the West in particular they have inspired science and science fiction in abundance. And as humans yearn to land on Mars millions of dollars are invested while humanity’s own planet is left to wither and die.
But there was a time that what could be found on the ground also inspired pure wonderment. A time before satellites and high velocity jet travel. But even then, when explorers would blunder across such sites as Angkor Wat, they would be led, inevitably, back to the stars.
Richard Knafelc follows in a long line of creatives who live with stars in their eyes. Amongst his numerous predecessors was the English artist and adventurer Frederick Catherwood (1799 –1854) who in the mid-19th century travelled through Mesoamerica in order to render the mathematical and astronomical calculations and structures of the Mayan civilisation. Knafelc’s homage to Catherwood can be seen here in Explorers’ fields (after Catherwood). The ‘fields’ that Knafelc refers to are both the remote regions of the Earth and the points of light in the night sky. A Mayan stone entity (borrowed from Catherwood’s renderings) sits incongruously amidst a backdrop akin to a contemporary astronomical star map – two vastly different cultures in pursuit of understanding.
Knafelc is clearly, and understandably, fascinated by the clash of time and culture melding via a shared fascination with the cosmos. Like the Mayans, the ancient Egyptians were culturally star-struck. His Liminal state depicts an ancient tomb chapel, a portal to the next world where relatives would worship the dead. But instead of visitors in ancient garb, Knafelc’s visitors are dressed in contemporary attire and, still more incongruously accompanied by a thylacine, or, given Knafelc’s crazed cosmology, what could be Bastet, the feline goddess of the Upper Nile. Knafelc’s thylacine is an incongruous reference to an extinct species which parallels the extinction of ancient Egypt’s civilisation. Time is clearly in flux in Knafelc’s oeuvre.
Ozymandias was the Greek name for the Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II and became the title of a famous 1818 sonnet by Percy Bysshe Shelley which he began writing after the announcement of a massive statue of the warrior king being acquired by the British Museum. In Knafelc’s zone however, Ozymandias never made it to London, travelling, perhaps teleporting, via Knafelc, to another planet altogether. However, like Knafelc’s Bastet/thylacine hybrid, the figure featured here is a Toltec warrior statue hailing from an ancient Mesoamerican culture, rather than the statue of Ramesses II. Time and cultures are in collision.
Knafelc’s fantastical metafictional hallucinatory worlds are inevitably linked to ‘real’ world history and its inevitable conspiracy theories. In In search of the Great Architect, Knafelc lifts the tomb of the neoclassical sculptor Antonio Canova, built by his students in the early 19th century. In Canova’s design, which was never completed, the tomb was to house Titian’s heart.
Knafelc relishes that fact that the pyramidal shape of Canova’s tomb is a Freemason symbol of the Great Architect of the Universe, a symbol we are familiar with not only via Egyptian history, but via the mysterious symbol found on the American one dollar bill with its all-seeing eye.
Knafelc’s 2014 show, Transformations, at Red Gallery, was a different affair, its subject matter immersed in the cold mundane environs of contemporary life. Writing on that show Juliette Hanson accurately noted of one work that: “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.”
Since then, Knafelc has eschewed the mundane for the cosmic. He has charged full bore through the portal to escape the commonplace and in doing so has landed in a realm where the historical meets the futuristic – a zone akin to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
In an artist statement accompanying this exhibition, Knafelc states that: “In essence, the concept underpinning these works is the finite versus the infinite. This is informed by philosophical ideas of cosmological and transcendental infinity and Kantian notions of the sublime”.
“We know from science that most of the elements within our bodies were forged eons ago in stars,” Knafelc claims. And, in a comment that perhaps recalls David Bowie in The Man Who Fell To Earth: “Thus, the juxtaposition of humans and stars reminds us of the unity of the cosmos – We are all made of stardust.”
– Ashley Crawford
Essay on Transformations Exhibition (2014) by Juliette Hanson:
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.2 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.3 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”.4
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.
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.
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.
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 dissension.
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”.5 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.
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.
Juliette Hanson, Independent Writer and Curator, Melbourne, April 2014.
1 In some cases only the tones are reversed but not the colours, 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.
Adriani G ed. Gerhard Richter paintings from private collections, Hatje Cantz Verlag, Ostfildern, 2008.
Bachelor D ed. Colour, Whitechapel Gallery London, MIT Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, 2008.
Crimp D. The End of Painting, October, vol.16: 69-86, 1981.
Myers TR ed. Painting, Whitechapel Gallery London, MIT Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, 2011.