at DC Moore Gallery
The radiant serenity of this exhibition belies the tension
it maintains between the Luminist tradition and Color-field
abstraction. Mark Rothko informs this work no less than Martin
Johnson Heade and Frederic Edwin Church.
Knott filters the characteristic features of Luminismemphatic
horizontality, glowing effects of light and atmosphere, muted
brush work consonant with transparent distancesof all
specificities. Paintings are grounded in the natural world
but focused on precisely that point at which our perceptions
yield to an abstraction: the horizon, that visual line formed
by an imaginary plane tangent to the earths surface.
The receding planes of landscape convention are replaced by
two clearly defined geometries, the crystalline rectangle
of sky and the more opaque stretch of flat sea.
Simplicity is the gravaman of Knotts painting. The
horizon is a spare motif with barely enough there to make
a painting. Sea and sky are distinguished from each other
less by color or texture than by a primal, indivisible line.
The pleasure of the work hinges on the generosity of Knotts
gift for finding features in deserted space. The exalted,
almost savage isolation of her motif abstains from scenery,
proffering instead meditations on the void. Or on that sign
of it we grasp at lands end. Here is the horizon transfigured,
a visual mantra inviting withdrawal to an oasis of silence
beyond the racket of the world. Beyond the racket of the mind
Blue Charm is the Irish name for the particular reflected
light of the early dawns and prolonged twilights of the northwest
coast of Mayo, the extreme western edge of Northern Europe.
It describes the cool luminosity of the Celtic periphery,
a variegated clarity enveloping bleak land where it confronts
the vast Atlantic. The Irish Finisterre is wild and
barren, peat bogs imitating tundra on land as treeless as
any above the timberline in the northern hemisphere. Only
the light lends a sense of grandeur and expansion, of expansiveness,
to harsh country that drops, unrelieved, into vast sea.
The fourteen paintings in this exhibition originated during
Knotts recent summer as a resident fellow of the Ballinglen
Arts Foundation in Ballycastle, County Mayo. Since its inception
in 1992, Ballinglen has been a motive force behind sophisticated
contemporary landscape painting here and abroad. This is some
of the loveliest of it, recording an accomplished painters
responses to the view from a rim of the world.
From a remote cottage facing seaward, Knott was presented
with the daily play of extraordinary weather conditions. With
nothing northward except the Arctic polar regions, the view
draws the imagination back into prehistory, beyond the myths
of Cúchulainn to the Iron Age. From whatever vantage
point, the curve of the earth parallels the field of vision.
Few painters are as suited as Knott to so empty a view.
Her work is remarkable for the combined delicacy and energy
with which she suggests the shifting tonalities of atmospheric
exchanges and their visual impact across the far surface of
water. Her technique is appropriate to the migrating effects
she sets out to suggest. Brush marks are virtually absent.
No stroke should disturb the mensuration of values. Her surfaces,
whether on panel or fine-grained linen, are not so much painted
as wiped and scored. Softened tonal distortions result from
manipulations that are largely subtractive. Pigments suspended
in oil or wax are scraped, abraded, reapplied and worked again.
Thin veils of color accumulate, soft and light as an exhalation
sibilius aurae tenuis, in the phrase of the ancient
Each painting maintains the same ratio of sea to sky, with
firmament commanding a greater stage to showcase its larger
expressive opportunities. Landscape detailscloud forms,
wavesare omitted in their particularities, making drawing
unnecessary. Instead, meteorological changes and the movement
of water are suggested by accidents of abrasion that occur
in the process of working. Because nothing is fixed and motion
is the only constant, their ephemeral qualities are all the
more pronounced. Fluidity of the elements contrasts keenly
with a static horizon line, making its severity more startling.
Whispers of metallic pigmenthere golden, there roseate
or bronzeare beautifully handled. Metallics are dangerous
to use. Too much and they become tinsel shortcuts to luminosity.
Not so here. Knott applies them with great restraint, achieving
specular hints of sunlight refracted and held in dispersion.
Mercy, 1999, is stunning, its lateral proportions
and dynamic sky recalling Heades views of turbulence
off Narragansett Bay or Newport Beach. Dawn begins at the
right edge, a leftward thrust of white light marking the horizon.
A burst of pale yellows and pinks, fringed with a murmur of
the inevitable cerulean, push dusky reds and ultramarines
to the edges of the canvas. The horizon line itself changes
color from white to blue-grey to earth redin
response to movement in the upper atmosphere. Mercy
earns its place as the keystone of the exhibition.
Eminence, 1999, derives its expressive force from
the dramatic contrast between a darkened sea hugging the bottom
of the picture plane and the broad, incandescent afterglow
of daylight retreating westward. Night encroaches from the
east, drenched in belladonna and nightshade, suggesting twilight
as it has been glimpsed off these coasts since the the Druid
past. Looking at it bought to mind the lesson of Song of Jonah.
Like Jonah on the waves, every man lives above the abyss.
The abyss, the Song warns, is not a vacancy but an active
force that follows us as inexorably as the night.
The painting that comes closest to the all-over pictorial
space of abstraction is Fog, 1999. It is also, for
me, the single not-quite successful piece. The refinement
of Knotts handling is overwhelmed by an airless expanse
of pale puritan grey. Certainly, there is color here to allay
monotony: a swell of warm pinks, touches of pale blue. But
the chromatic variations on such a closely-knit surface are
almost too subtle to be seen. What could have been Whistlerian
succeeds mainly in becoming claustrophobic. A vigorously applied
or impastoed underlayer, yielding more edges to inflect the
glazes above it, might have breathed more life into it.
Knotts smaller paintings gain in immediacy what they
surrender in monumentality. Mor, 1999, is an enchanted
medley of blues, from the sweetest azure to muted indigo,
that separate to reveal carmine beneath and pale lemon.
Lacken Strand and Reckoning, each painted this
year, maintain the still mood and economy of design that both
record the material world and simultaneously pay homage to
My heart stopped at one of the small (11 x 22 inches) panels,
Golden Strand, 1999. A deep blue cord divides two resplendent
fields of ocher and gold. One is dense and tangible below
the prominent horizon-stripe. The other disperses above into
impalpable yellows and pale blue-greens. An exquisite invention,
unbound by expectations of realism, it has the feel of life
to it. This gem of a panel extracts the infinite from the
shifting obscurities of a passing moment. It stands in lustrous
testament to the uses of imagination.
A contemporary of Churchs, on viewing his work, exclaimed:
"Here there is room to breathe. Here the soul expands."
It could be said of this exhibition as well.