In Silke Otto-Knapp’s exhibition “In the Waiting Room” at the Renaissance Society, five paintings are hung individually on low, temporary walls and a single painting stands on its own in the center of the room, its panels hinged and bent to form a kind of folding screen. Each painting contains scenes of isolated or grouped human figures, some dominated by trees, branches and foliage that stretch the length of the canvas and fill their edges. Some figures stand in groups or perform solitary isolated actions throughout the canvas. Although she has made each work with only black pigment, the paintings contain a surprising spectrum of elusive neutral values that are nearly incandescent. By building up layers and layers of thin watercolor while tilting the canvas in subtle angles and wiping away and brandishing the surface as it dries, Otto-Knapp is able to create rich surfaces that give her subjects an enigmatic softness. Because of this, her work at first glance looks more like heavily worked graphite drawings than paintings made with a brush. The subjects overall are flat and illustrative, with little definition to their form but the dense, nearly imperceivable layers of thin pigment make their edges irresolute and ethereal. Even large bodies of empty space in many of the works appear to vibrate with undulating frequencies of subtle painterly texture.
Otto-Knapp’s subjects, whether human or flora, dance easily between light and shadow. Some are resolute and assertive, while others dance in and out of darkness, sinking into other forms or melding with the landscape. In two paintings, “Group (Reaching)” and “Group (Moving),” dark charcoal gray figures stand in a dense crowd in an empty pale (almost silver) background, each performing different gestures, facing the viewer or in profile. Where the figures collide and overlap, there are subtle shifts in value, as if we are looking down onto a lightbox stacked with layers of characters and props cut from wax paper, the soft light projecting through and describing their form and weight.
With arms outstretched and bodies elegantly bent, each action performed by Otto-Knapp’s subjects are choreographed and theatrical. Even the paintings themselves feel like movable stage props, hung on low, temporary walls. Seeing their unpainted wooden backsides feels as if I am peeking behind a stage curtain, the mechanics of each illusion revealed. This feeling is the most palpable with “Screen (Trees and Moon),” a folding screen in the center of the installation consisting of five panels at eight-by-thirteen feet. Its face is painted with trunks and boughs, dotted with foliage and embracing a singular white moon, void of any human presence. It is a strange feeling to walk across the front of the painting, swallowed into its landscape, branches hung low overhead, darkness closing in around you, then suddenly being met with stark white canvas, staples, and stretcher bars as you walk around its edge.
Walking through Silke Otto-Knapp’s exhibition, I am reminded of the many elusive ways that painting can invite us into its enigmatic theater. (Cody Tumblin)
“Silke Otto-Knapp: In the Waiting Room,” Renaissance Society, 5811 South Ellis, through March 29.