5Q’s with John Knight

5Q’s with John Knight

This edition of 5 Q’s we followed up with the artist John Knight to discuss his exhibition, Hook and ladder dreams, in the Holland Project’s Serva Pool Gallery. We asked him about the ideas and influences that go into his work, and his thought processes behind the exhibition.

John Knight (b. 1986) lives in Montana. He has recently exhibited at Final Hot Desert in Salt Lake City, Private Places and Muscle Beach in Portland, The American Institute of Thoughts and Feelings in Tucson, and Julius Caesar in Chicago. Curatorial projects include: Williamson | Knight, and Cherry and Lucic in Portland, and THE PINK HOUSE (Jan. 19 1995) at Bad Reputation in Los Angeles.

More photos on our Flickr page.

1. What was your approach to creating your exhibition, Hook and ladder dreams, at the Holland Project’s Serva Pool Gallery? Were there specific ideas and inspirations influencing you? 

As an artist, I don’t have a studio practice. Instead, I work as a project based artist, opting to make alongside a gallery. With, Hook and ladder dreams, I started sketching out ideas for the project during the winter of 2019. I work fairly slow when building my projects; reading poetry, looking at art and listening to various musicians on repeat. Early on I discovered the poet Spoon Jackson after watching Barstow, California by Rainer Komers. The film is a documentary, and is experimental in nature, and it includes long pans of the landscape that is Barstow, California. It is narrated by Jackson, who is a prisoner in the California penal system and is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole. His work reflects on blackness, otherness, youth, histories of slavery, and the prison industrial complex in the United States.

Around the same time, I started reading Arturo Giovannitti, a 19th century Italian emigre to America, who was a socialist activist and organizer of the 1912 Lawrence textile strike. I discovered Arrows in the Gale, which is forwarded by his friend Helen Keller, when separately working on research on the small mountain town of Ripabottoni, Italy, where my ancestors are from, and where Giovannitti was born. When reading both poets, I started to think more about landscape, movement, and migration–specifically the landscape of the American West, and its histories of genocide and the ongoing methods of colonization and erasure via industrial prison labor, resource extraction and cattle ranching. This is to say, early on into making the project, I was reflecting on the histories that directly result in my being in the West and occupying land, and grappling with the histories of artists leaving art centers for isolated landscapes to escape market pressures and re engage with ideas of purity and beauty within their work. I should note that during the winter and spring of 2019, my partner was finishing her thesis work on ongoing settler colonial actions occurring at the National Bison Range on the Flathead Reservation in Western Montana. As she filtered through hours of interviews with white suprmacists, ranchers and various lay people opposed to tribal management at the range, I began to understand and take into consideration more of my own ancestral history in regards to colonization, migration and erasure. I began to reflect more on landscape and industry and it shifted my research further towards the political. This also resulted in an exhibition in Salt Lake City at Final Hot Desert in September, 2019.

2. What was your process in creating the work presented that brought your ideas and inspirations into the gallery space?

My process in creating work for projects begins with working with the architecture of a space. I work with the dimensions and framework of a gallery working slowly to take notes and sketch out ideas as they relate to poetry, politics and music. For the past two years I have been working with monochrome painting and spending time with texts on or by artists such as Olivier Mossett, Marcia Hafif, and the Radical Painting Group. Since I couldn’t be at the gallery until install, much of my process in the months leading up to the exhibition consisted of reading, writing and sketching. I also worked with past collaborator Rebecca Peel to develop a text around the exhibition.

3. There seems to be a thought process between what’s going on inside the gallery space and outside of it in regards to the physical work, and the broader ideas and concepts. In the press release which was a letter by Rebecca Peel, she asks “What’s the difference, really, between a so-called outside and an in? I may never know…”  Does your work focus on having a distinction between the inside and the outside / between art and life?

I’m not sure sure if there is an actual distinction between concepts of inside and out in my work. I think more about the surface, and the players in any given situation that move across it. The monochromes help me in providing a framework in which I can look at a space and allows various objects I am in relation with to call towards interpersonal histories with those that I am involved with, including the gallery. This is also a sort of theater for me. You have the artist, gallarist, curator, collector, audience, etc. How do we all move on a stage? As this project started, I was ending my relationship with my business and business partner in Portland, Oregon, and had decided to make a turn against market success following a disastrous and money focused curatorial project in 2018.

In the letter from Peel, her question points towards ideas of exterior / interior in regards to our minds eyes as viewers. What does it mean to look daily at a distant prison complex that is completely secure–where no movement is witnessed from the outside? Does our relationship architecture or a framework shift when we imagine the interior? What does it mean to be the exterior experiencing the interior through mediated information? What about our bodies on a landscape with histories already attached, or as young artists who have sought market recognition–and have decided to turn away when the surface was peeled back? What meaning do we get to make when we arrive at some sort of distant space? I want to cause a rupture of expectation when I or an audience looks at an art. I want to be aware of my body and others in space, for our eyes to shift between color, concept and staging, and to arrive together at the start of a dérive.

4. The use of the readymade is prominent in the exhibition from the works, “Situation, confrontation, scattered syntax and ennui,” created from a Ford F-150 exhaust system, to “Untitled (stunted expression),” created by expropriating the Serva Pool wall and sign painting. What is your thought process behind the use of the readymade? Do you see your paintings, and photographs as readymades as well?

The monochromes largely function as readymades. My approach comes from a space of de-skilled labor where the paintings like the sculptures are fabricated with the lowest common denominator in mind, where the presence of the artist collapses on the surface of an object. The paintings get three coats of oil-based enamel on canvas. The sculptures are fabricated by others, albeit, Ford factories or hired help to accomplish the obvious–existing as found and staged. The monochromes with “Hook and ladder dreams” perhaps take on the look of always-have-being in-the-space if we were to dream of the gallery’s past or future lives. I see this as a sort of anti-capitalist and anti-maker position where I can accomplish the same results as a craftsperson but with the least amount of steps.

Photography is still an outlier to me in relation to the readymade. For the past two years I have been delivering food to supplement my income while working in visitor engagement at the Missoula Art Museum. I have become this strange late night navigator of city streets and to kill time, I carry a point and shoot 35mm camera to document various on-the- clock dérives. The end point of these travels reveal a pattern of documents that show trash piles, industrial remnants and floral landscapes. In the gallery the included photograph is somewhat pedestrian; a snapshot. To work against the photogaph’s nature as a fleeting document, I sought to shift its presence towards a dominant object that can act as a formal punctuation.

5. The exhibition title, “Hook and ladder dreams” comes from a Neil Young lyric, has the title grown to relate to the exhibition? Understanding that music is important to you and influences your artwork, do you approach your art practice as if you were creating music? I have a theory that musicians want to be artists and artists want to be musicians.

I used to fantasize that I could play music but I am a terrible musician, and I lack the discipline to learn an instrument. More, I can’t correctly remember or recite lyrics. I am tone deaf and I grew up with a speech impediment which resulted in me being cautious about any output of vocal or mediated sound from my body. However when making an exhibition, ideas on the rhythm and pacing of objects in space are important. In the world I have relationships with various shapes, colors and objects. Exhibition and project spaces become the framework to categorize and compose these relationships into further being.

Interview conducted by HT MacDiarmid.