Silke Otto-Knapp: Monday or Tuesday
Camden Arts Centre, London
17 January - 30 March 2014
Review by George Vasey
If Silke Otto-Knapp’s paintings were accompanied by a soundtrack then one might imagine the attenuated vocals of Phil Oakey and the glacial synths of the early Human League wafting in overhead. The melodic, yet melancholic tone of Eighties synth pop neatly captures the artist’s diaphanous work. ‘Monday or Tuesday’, named after a collection of short stories by Virginia Wolf, brings together a number of recent paintings and etchings completed by Otto-Knapp over the last few years. The exhibition upholds the artist’s twin concerns, depicting aspects of dance history and the landscape, and it extends her painterly approach, refined over the last decade.
Atypically for a painter, Otto-Knapp creates images through a subtractive rather than additive approach, building up and dissolving washes of watercolour and gauche on primed canvas. Paint sits in the tooth of the canvas rather than on top - surface and image are entwined. The image appears as though a mirage, at once seductive and unattainable. This is further dramatised by the removal of any colour: these new canvases are entirely painted in charcoal grey and silver. Otto-Knapp often adds an iridescent medium, so the surfaces of her paintings yield to light in unexpected ways. The overall effect is one of walking under a full moon - objects become silhouettes, details become outlines, and traceable in the half-light.
A number of the paintings depict groups of dancers. Individuality is consumed within the collective, bodies start to merge as one. In other paintings, leafy foliage and expansive vistas are painted from recent residencies, others echo the same vistas painted by Edvard Munch, employing a similar billowing expressionism, albeit shorn of Munch’s chromatic intensity. Looking at Otto-Knapp’s paintings I’m reminded of the 18th-century obsession for the Claude glass, and the tradition of looking at the landscapes through a small convex black mirror. There has been a persistent desire to domesticate the landscape, to frame it - a simultaneous need towards distance and intimacy that is articulated in Otto-Knapp’s nebulous works. The lack of spatial depth in the work feels both formal and metaphorical, pushing the viewer back onto the surface of the image and into the space of the gallery.
All of Otto-Knapp’s work, in different ways, is about movement. Her paintings depict mobility yet they also encourage you to walk up to and around them. From one side they appear monochromatic, at different angles subtle details are revealed. For images that remain at a point of dissolution they resolutely return us to our own physicality. One can draw easy parallels to dance in its attempts to provide suppleness from heavy limbs.
There are few other painters active today that work in painting with a similar level of visual intelligence. ‘Monday or Tuesday’ finds Otto-Knapp in a position of authority, refining her fugitive paintings, at once desirable and out of bounds.