Kathy Knaus: looking critically at the ideal female body

Kathy Knaus "Cindy Crawford"
Kathy Knaus “Cindy Crawford”

Some content originally published at Art Colorado, November/ December 2011

By Theresa Anderson

I started a series of conversations with Kathy Knaus as she was preparing for her solo exhibit at Ice Cube Gallery back in 2010. She is best known for her meat paintings such as the piece “Grinder” that was installed in 2010 as part of the Denver Theatre District’s project.   Her works are often read by the viewer as political— whether the paintings and installations are seen as pro or con— they come from her unwillingness to look away, her fascination with, and deep exploration of conflicting self.

The set of work from 2010-11, Screaming Rabbits, is no exception. In this exhibit Knaus juxtaposed a series of conceptual paintings riffing on the ideals of fashion models with an abstraction of her marriage bed. The two series when combined, form a commentary on the luscious impossibility of a woman’s body and life. The canvases and installation are both marked and reconstructed in ways that delegate flesh to impermanence and mark the struggle with the cultural demand of freshness, rejuvenation, and cleanliness of youth.

Kathy Knaus "Grable"
Kathy Knaus “Grable”

The installation piece, The Marriage Bed, consists of a thick stack of predominantly red large (80″ x 43″) canvas from her series Cooler Doors stack on top of a seemingly pristine white platform balanced on two book-ended nightstands. The piling of paintings, platform, and marred, yet repaired, nightstands conjure a powerful abstraction holding decades of memory. The Cooler Doors depict meat carving implements like a wicked tongue (a stand-in for the artists voice) juxtaposed against a palette of royalty. The sharpness of cutting hooks and lick-able flesh in these pieces are sensorial as well as politically sensational.  Paired and piled The Marriage Bed especially holds the possibility of her place in the world. And yet, the marriage bed itself is encumbered, a small precarious space.

Her description is telling. “It holds two people, children, animals, dirt, drink, food, hair, bugs, blood, sperm, sweat, passion, happiness, sadness, tears, hopefulness, dreams, drool, milk, urine, tension, relaxation, anger, cuddling, not touching and other bodily secretions and emotions. The particular object, this place holder speaks volumes in a world silent on the significance of the marriage bed. “

On top of the bed, Kathy has laid a bed-cover that she carried around for weeks on end. Eating, sleeping, and painting on it, she sat on it alone days on end and with her dogs. Representing a passage, her interaction with the coverlet resembles a portrait of the 24 years spent with her marriage bed.

Similar to the fashion of creation of the installation, the painting canvases that accompany The Marriage Bed also are stacked — only vertically up the wall instead of horizontally off the floor. Knaus had each set of canvas constructed to mimic the measurements of supermodels through the decades. Each set of eight canvases is divided into thirds to represent the measurements of each model. Knaus painted each set of canvas and then taking them apart she reconfigured the new groupings to describe the actuality of women’s measurements. Working closely with measurements and following an instinctual mark making, dissecting the models basic construction became her sensor; her microscope looking at the personal ramifications of food addiction and body image.

Kathy Knaus "Oluchi"
Kathy Knaus “Oluchi”

Heightened to the ramifications of women’s portraiture and the history of abstract expressionism, Knaus chooses painterly abstraction as a tongue in cheek commentary, one with fits and starts that leave room for another self to fill in the blanks. The stacked canvases are slick, dry, drippy, all over, intertwined with hard-edged constructions that combined with powerful marks ascertain her acceptability, her validity and power. She asked “Is this red enough for you? Is this shiny enough for you? Is this pretty enough for you? Is this figurative enough…?”

With the sensibilities of a third-wave feminist, Knaus’ paintings were deliberately conceived after she read an article in a trendy fashion magazine that compared the discrepancies of heights of supermodels from the 1940’s to today. Comparing the measurements of the bust, waist, and hip to the increasingly towering heights, a trend of lengthening had been perceived. Even as the models tallness increased, their measurements became exponentially smaller. From Betty Grable who in the 1940’s was 5’4” with measurements of 36” x 24” x 35” to today’s supermodel extraordinaire, Eve Salvail, 6’8” with the seemingly impossible 32”x 24”x 35”.

Perhaps the remnants of her excavation of the impossible height of the supermodel Salvail represent the true stature and nature of the artist herself?

In 2012 Knaus and I continued our studio visits. I wrote a piece about her for The Invisible Museum blog.  An excerpt- Knaus’ work is often defined by her use of private details, media saturation, geometric abstraction to figuration, as well as constant regard for conceptual ramifications.  These elements are clear throughout her edgy installations such as Cooler Doors, Meat Market, Screaming Rabbits and Body Dysmorphia.

Kathy Knaus. "Pretzels dipped"
Kathy Knaus. “Pretzels dipped” part of “She was hungry for…” 2012
Knaus often uses installation and process-based painting to confront the issues- and here it’s of food addiction.  Knaus’ paint-handling gets beyond the current glut of images that portray an idealized body. Riffing on reality media and personal experience- mark-making dissects unhealthy obsessions. “Frustration, grief and anguish are invoked with loose, drippy, uncontrolled, and messy brushstrokes.”

Kathy Knaus "The more I diet"

Concentrating on a highly tuned palette and compositional resolution, the canvases are plied with figuration, odd shapes, and squishy forms that explore a complex content.  A sequence of structural elements become resting spaces.  Figure-ground relationships are intensely explored and document the back-and-forth struggle with body dysmorphia. Knaus’ process invokes psychoanalytical experimentation. She notes that “awkward gestural marks convey uncertainty; geometric shapes connote control.”

Knaus said “The installation piece is a depiction straight out of my living room. An obvious pile of junk food is sprawled all over the coffee table.  Playing on the television is a video of me (with my dogs) moving back and forth between the couch and the food. The dark walls surrounding the setting invoke the permutation of loneliness.  With only my dogs, I’m constantly reminded of the inability to control my unhealthy relationship with food.  This installation represents a lifelong struggle of loneliness, depression, anxiety, and desire for attention, love and passion all suppressed by the consummation of food.”

Knaus is now preparing for her next exhibition at Ice Cube Gallery, Denver CO set to open October 17, 2013.  To understand her current work, a look to the past is in order. There’s some linkage.

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