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Joianne Bittle Knight, “A Royal Family”, at Wave Hill

Joianne Bittle Knight, “A Royal Family”, at Wave Hill

Nicholas Knight

December 12, 2007

Here’s an installation shot from Joi Bittle Knight’s recent solo show at Wave Hill, in the Sunroom Project Space:

The show was a presentation of two works: a large work painted across three canvases, hanging on the wall, depicting the brightly patterned backside of a jewel beetle; and a large drawing across three sheets of paper, laying flat in the center of the space, depicting the underside of the same beetle. By keeping to just these two pieces, the installation highlighted a number of formal dichotomies: painted/drawn; hanging/flat; front/back; color/monochrome.

Quickly these formal qualities gave way to another layer of signification. Bearing in mind that both works depict a single individual, these dualities became indicators of grand themes. On the wall was the colorful and potent dimension, boldly announcing its virility and strength, all armored and posturing. Laying flat, belly up, the specimen could not be more vulnerable, a probing pencil line tracing the contours of every unspeakable detail. It may be dead, or if it’s a pose of sexual receptivity, then it’s a sexuality of resignation.

Another aspect to the installation was the secular/religious. The format of the painting made explicit reference to early Renaissance alterpieces. With the flat gold background and side panels flanking the main center canvas, the beetle was taken from its sacred role in non-Western cultures and given pride of place within an idiom usually reserved for Madonna and Child, the great martyrs, and of course, the great donors. The drawing took this theme and inverted it: in its horizontality, linearity, and depiction of the anatomical underside, this work made cunning use of the tropes of scientific depiction. Further, its presentation in a white frame, on white pedestals centered in the room, made reference to modernist style, and all the celebration of secular knowledge and enlightenment that entails.

The focus and specificity of this exhibition shows Bittle Knight to be an artist fiercely committed to her interests. As a result, the most rewarding aspects of the work are revealed slowly, despite the obvious wow-factor generated by her considerable pictorial skill. Her subjects, in their natural and cultural dimensions, are deeply formed by the cauldron of time; the works ask us to pause, look closely, and glimpse something ancient at large in the present.

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