To contemplate “Waniya,” or any part of Excess, Kathryn Knudsen’s mixed media show at Bountiful Davis Art Center, is to see clearly just how far art has come since the Abstract Expressionists put America on the world art map in the years following World War II. Then, the works were enormous: Jackson Pollock’s largest stands eight feet high and measures twenty feet long, which while extreme is not atypical of AbEx paintings. Knudsen’s constructions at BDCA, all of them in portrait mode, are each about the size of a table-top art book. Pollock’s best-known works were meant to show off the action of making them by dripping paint; hers keep their origins secret. His are bold diagrams, while hers are intimate, creature-like, as though each is a living thing. Most importantly, the AbEx painters worked under the influence of Clement Greenberg, who was convinced that the essence and destiny of flat art was to be completely flat, containing neither real nor imaginary depth. Knudsen’s art revels in three dimension. Set in deep frames covered with glass, they tease and tantalize not only the eye and brain, but the palms and fingers of the viewer’s hands, which want to stroke and run through their inviting surfaces.
In the past, Kathryn Knudsen has made elaborate use of mixed materials: John Williams, a professor at Yale, describes “an unpredictable labyrinth of oil paint, canvas, fabric, thread, paper, beads and other materials” that he calls “as luminous as it is provocative.” Here and now, however, the emphasis is on textiles, on materials that suggest felting, weaving, knotting, but transcend such manufacture to become as abstract as the compositions they comprise. In “Waniya,” an Islamic woman’s name meaning “soft, gentle breeze,” which the artist may have borrowed from numerous places, a grassy covering of gold and green leaves emerges from a perforated, metallic gray base. The multitude of holes in this ground have been laced to form flowing patterns that add to the sense of motion, like seaweed perhaps, but without passing over from abstraction to representing a specific subject. Near the bottom, the gray substrate turns red and forms a number of fingerlings. Many of her works similarly imply the form of a heraldic shield.
By comparison, it’s pretty clear how “Lost Socks” got its name: without apparent intention on Knudsen’s part, its jumble of visual and tactile patterns bear a nostalgic resemblance to a basket of lone socks, possibly invoking any community of solitary individuals: lost socks, like lost souls, aren’t always the tragedy they’re taken for.
Knudsen’s titles are brief and refreshing, like the impact their namesakes carry. One ensemble of four includes “Pam,” “Yeti,” “Willow,” and “Candy.” Many of the names are just that — names, like “Fran,” “Betty,” and “Jessica,” suggesting a possible association with the artist’s friends, or some more random connection. Support for the latter possibility comes from “Big Plume,” which suggests a drone’s-eye view of a landscape, probably a garden. The possible sources of these abstracts are just part of the pleasure to be had when thinking about them while looking at them. The small gallery where they currently hang has to be one of the happiest places around. While many of the comments left tended towards a wish to have the covers off and to caress them, these works deliver as much sensuous pleasure to the eye and mind as they promise to provide the flesh. This may be Kathryn Knudsen’s point: that the eye isn’t only the gateway to the soul, or the mind; it’s also the gateway to the rest of us.
Kathryn Knudsen: Excess, Bountiful Davis Art Center, Bountiful, through Sep. 10