Zoe Knight: A Show of Devotion

Published 3 June 2015 Cameron Hope

To reminisce: I once – against all common sense – bought a cumbersome and delicate, hollow glass shell which had long ago adorned the top of a petrol bowser. It was cracking under its own weight, it was heavy, it was large, it took up a seat on the train I was then traveling; I was holidaying and it was at this juncture that I realized, my glass shell certainly wasn’t coming home with me, wasn’t leaving the seat it occupied. £2 naively spent, but there is no regret attached to the memory, a memory of re-appropriated objects and the precarious nature of their ongoing existence.

If you have ever kept something that doesn’t work, salvaged something that was destined for the rubbish, or repurposed something and reflect on why it was you performed that specific action, whilst remembering the pleasure that it achieved, you will have a sound introduction into Zoe Knight’s artistic practice. The key that unlocks Knight’s oeuvre is in understanding the why of her practice. Why indeed? Was the object unique, unfamiliar, unappreciated or beautiful?

The most recurrent formal feature of Zoe Knight’s artistic practice since midway through her undergraduate degree in 2012/13 has been the knot. Since then, the narrative of her practice has been one of experimentation with scale, presentation and the visual framing of these knots. We can see, viewing her online portfolio, just how many variations there have been; sometimes knots alone on the floor, at times on a rack suspended from the ceiling, knots on plinths, piled atop each other and one rather forlorn looking knot impaled onto a wooden pike leaning against a dance studio mirror. Knight’s art shows a willingness to engage with discussions that extend an historical understanding of the ‘placing’ of her work. Beyond the abstract, the formal or contextual genre-based descriptions or arguably historical pigeonholing such as we might formulate when discussing a modernist sculptor.

Of course, her work is modern and sculptural. Such attention to form, line, and space in some ways mirror the aesthetic of Jean Arp, or a scaled down Tony Smith. Some of Knight’s work with wire and metals are statuesque and reposed in a similar manner that remains evocative of these artists. Additionally, the idea of the knot is paradigmatically modern or even post-modern by implying a certain confusion over whether the work has been made, re-made, or was ready-made. Something of Knight’s practice carries forward concerns expressed, both in the disciplines of Carl Andre and Eva Hesse.

However, an aesthetic-comparative type of reasoning seems secondary when the form of the work is a knot because knots are symbolically self-woven and thus self-referential. The internal tension of the form of these knots is an apt starting point for viewing Knight’s work, especially for those made from rubbers, plastics, PVC, etc. which seem muscular and tense, seemingly holding themselves together via a friction arising from the tautness of their own re-contextualized materiality.

To speak summatively, Knight’s work utilizes blocks of colour in her echoing of formal motifs. Roughly sphere-like knots and simple, atonal plinths, tend to be composed of one or two material components. These materials have been sourced from construction-site waste-bins, or saved for her by family and friends. Throughout her oeuvre, there is clear evidence of the hand of the artist in the works formal intricacy, tactility and precision of placement [1]. Each of her works is a meticulously constructed, standalone piece of art that conjures intrigue whilst summoning an indefatigable interest.

As each of her works specifically responds to its materiality and the conditions of its display, so must our means of relation to the work involve some engagement with these self same artistic triggers. By positioning the materiality of the works themselves as the source of their primary outcome, Knight’s work elicits a manifest tactile allure. In highlighting the texture, size, fluidity and plasticity of the material that has been knotted, it would seem that we are urged to identify with the works, to imagine their feel, their malleability, their stickiness or dryness. And of course it is through an extension of this dynamic that we become connected to the artist by our implicit desire to need to explore the materiality of these objects. Knight’s practice requires an empathetic response from the viewer. Put simply, to experience the curiosity in the materiality of this body of work – one that precedes their being re-contextualized – is to experience the beginnings of an aesthetic moment.

It is on this note that we begin to appreciate Knight’s practice extending its lines of conversation and formulating a discourse ironically engrained in ‘fine art’ practice. For while Knight’s work is materially, if not formally, diverse, her practice has always been connected with something much broader than just the form of the work; namely the overall aesthetic conditions of their being viewed. It cannot be underestimated how important the manner in which the works are displayed, plays in the overall aesthetic resonance of each individual piece. Commented upon by Mitchell Donaldson throughout Test Pattern – a discussion of sorts surrounding Knight’s work – the lighting conditions and position of the object in situ plays a transformative effect on our reception.[2]

Extending Donaldson’s argument, Knight’s practice as a whole suggests a thoroughgoing concern with how to be equally considerate of what she creates and how those objects are most austerely displayed. And whilst in a sense we can appreciate Michael Fried’s thesis surrounding an encroaching theatricality toward art, Knight herself refers to this aspect of her exhibiting as “framing.” Similarly we can understand it as the artist’s ability to characteristically speak and occupy the spatial language and coherently navigate the dynamic framing of whatever gallery her work inhabits. Each time Knight exhibits, her objects are not so much installed into a space, but installed in relation to the spatial dynamic, responding to each unique environment by utilising the resources, flexibility and limitations throughout a space.

But it is truly an extension of her concern with materiality – which offers us a chance to attend to familiar sensations – that elicits intrigue, an obscure intent, or phenomenological recall, in which these materials seem at home, after all, they are a part of our everyday lives. Knight then often builds these “framing devices” into the works themselves, or the materiality of the object works in conjunction with the lighting, which in a still image, sees the work framing itself in a manner metaphorically similar to a painted landscape.

That the work seems to be self-framing, and seeks to be engaging us in a means of perception that includes both the context of the work and the work itself (we might say ‘its content’) is not to say that the work’s job is to clear a stage for the artist. Knight’s work is not really didactic or overtly political, though we could fruitfully read it in the light of socio-economic theories.

Materials that are often salvaged by the artist from worksite scrap-bins destined for dumps. Items saved by family and friends of the artist. Often, these scrap-bins are filled with waste from commercial, retail, and office space, opening the way for readings about the knotted relationships between commerce, waste, and art. And Knight herself makes readings from these facts and would thus likely welcome elaborations of them from others.[3]

Knight’s practice is arguably positioned to remain highly open to interpretation. Thus, the touchstone of the work is perception itself. With the meaning of its reception lying in reception itself and as always it is through our perception that our reception must begin. Interestingly, these two often vastly differing sensations split Knight’s practice so indeterminably between the material present and the way it is presented that we cannot justify reading one as an artistic endeavor and the other as a curatorial intervention.

Zoe Knight’s practice is a process of seeking the means by which to enliven in her audience their general capacity for sensory piquancy. Telling, then, that her materials should be the discarded, the left-over; the over-looked, the almost forgotten.