I recently raved about Nicholas Knight’s photography-based installation at Gallery 44. Here the artist answers some questions about process and content, and how the space at Gallery 44 led to an iteration of his work that may never have been executed otherwise.
One of the things I loved about your show at Gallery 44 is that you can really tell you were in the space. At what point during conception or production does your work become site-specific?
In a funny way, it's site-specific before there's even a site. The process for the works means they will always be re-photographed each time they're installed, wherever that may be, so the space itself will always be central to the finished installation. But in another way, they're not "site-specific" in the traditional sense, because they can be re-made elsewhere and still be the "same" pieces.
That being said, when planning an exhibition, I consider the actual space right from the beginning. My first reaction to the available space at Gallery 44 was that it would be perfect for a large piece from 2007 that had never been out of the studio. But while working out exactly how to tailor it to the architectural circumstances, it broke apart into two new pieces, Exposure Stack Horizontal and Double Frame / Torn Photo #2. If the configuration of the gallery had been different, I may never have developed those two pieces.
What led you to create this kind of work?
I got started on this body of work in 2004. It came from this sense I had that photography was amazingly flexible and ubiquitous, a container that could hold basically anything. But I wanted to make a picture of the container itself, and the trickiness of that task has kept the work going.
The first thought-experiment about how to do it was to imagine a picture hanging on the wall and then imagine the photo itself disappearing. What was left was the frame and all the accessories and habits that accompany it. The frame was the liminal space between the image and the world, if you will. So I decided to make a picture of that. But to complicate things, I wanted the frame, the accessories, and the space outside and behind it to be part of the picture.
Eventually I realized that there is a conceptual gap between the mechanical image-making process and what we mean when we talk about photography. There's a conceptual definition that we have all internalized. So the goal of the work became drawing that out into the open.
In your work, the familiar conventions of photography are re-mixed into something unexpected. Can you describe your process a bit?
The ideas that germinate at the beginning of a new piece tend to be intuitive rather than didactic. What usually happens is that the first version of an idea is too simplistic, too illustrative of the intuition. I really want the experience of a piece to seem interwoven, and non-linear. But I also want to make it appear very direct, and present. I have to make the things in the studio and judge the actual results to see if I'm on to something. So ultimately, the process is very physical and very visual.
What about your sentence diagram pieces?
Sentence diagramming was developed in the 19th century to teach school children the principles of proper English usage. The technique assigns every word in the sentence a specific grammatical role, which is expressed graphically by its position in a branching diagram.It's very exact and highly determined. But it's also old-fashioned and disappearing from the classroom.
For me, though, the sentence diagram is a found object. All the sentences I draw are found objects—they come from literature and philosophy, and they all have something to say about meaning and experience. So my objective in drawing the diagrams is to add a new layer of significance—the fact of being diagrammed inflects the quotation with an unforeseen meaning. The diagrams demonstrate that it is impossible to contain the implications of language once it enters the world.
A lot of your work seems systemic (more so than serial) in a way. Can you elaborate on your interest in technical processes?
I'm a technical and analytical thinker, so I naturally gravitate to that mode. But I think the strength of the technical approach is that its "code" exists on the surface of its product. I very much want my work to be open to direct experience. That doesn't mean cracking through the code will be easy for the viewer, but in principle, a patient engagement with the work will yield a full experience of it. There is nothing hidden beyond the borders of the perceptual field that's needed to make it comprehensible.
How do you balance process and product?
The balance is borne entirely by the product. I work on things with a process that (I hope) embodies certain values, but if the end result doesn't function on its own, the hopefulness of the process can't save it.My themes can be very abstract and slippery, which makes it all the more important that they are expressed concretely and directly, or else there's no hope of making a connection with the audience. The work has to stand up to the test of actual experience.
Images courtesy the artist.