Kris Knight’s paintings won’t give up their secrets
Toronto artist Kris Knight paints beautiful androgynous men in a soft pastel palette that’s mixed with patches of greyer hues reminiscent of decay. His works could easily descend into schlock, because they’re almost too attractive. But they evoke a slight unease that saves them from being saccharine — a hint of the sinister. His subjects often look away, like children ashamed of being caught in a lie. Some stare you down like cornered foxes. Some wear tiaras of melting candles. It’s prettiness with nerve.
Knight is the most celebrated member of a young Toronto crew that’s creating compelling portraiture in a digital age. He’s just now, at thirty-five, achieved aselfsustaining art career — he no longer works in a Mexican restaurant or at an eyewear boutique. Last year, he showed his work in Paris, San Francisco, and Toronto, and at Miami’s Art Basel. A year before, he had a breakout moment when Gucci tapped him to paint a mutated version of the brand’s classic floral print that Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour would later wear. In December, for the first time in about a decade, he took a few weeks off. (A self- described workaholic, he spent much of the time cleaning his apartment.) Now he’s back in the studio, preparing for yet another high-profile show — this one in Paris — which means he’s staring at canvas fourteen hours a day.
Despite the success, Knight is a grounded guy. He apologized, before our interview, for being a nervous person. He answers questions carefully, as if smoothing out the wrinkles of his anxious thoughts. He’s been pursuing his craft since he was four or five and early on chose to paint faces exclusively. “They’re the only things I’m inspired by,” he says.
As a child, Knight was obsessed with the guillotine scenes in Napoleon and Josephine , a late-’80s TV miniseries. His colours come from watching his baker mother ice cakes, but also from the gaudy portraiture of the French Revolution. He attended high school in Richtown, Ontario, and his teenage years were filled with closeted boys he covertly dated in southwestern towns around Windsor: “We would have relationships in the shadows — we’d meet up in forests, we’d meet up in fields, we’d take bus trips — and it was all about being a teenager and having early loves, but all through lies and secrets.” Out of a combination of these young lovers, cakes, and executions emerges an unsettling harmony of sex, indulgence, and foreboding.
At nineteen, Knight moved from Windsor to Toronto, where he attended OCAD University. There, his style evolved from a vivid comic-book palette to a delicate, beguiling counterpoise. But his core obsession — the eerie-pretty subject — remained the same. He paints mostly on small canvases he holds on his lap. He’s often working on six at a time: while the oil dries on one waif ’s cheekbones, he’s illuminating the eyes of another. He cuts much of his work to ribbons with a razor after he decides it’s not good enough. “When I’m painting for a long time,” he says, “I forget that I’m painting, and that’s when I start daydreaming. My brain is just a synthesis of fantasy and memory — I’m thinking about all these stories, and those stories turn into these paintings.”
Kris Knight’s Pansy (2015)