Ten Questions: Silke Otto-Knapp

“I want them to appear moonlit but as if I had imagined moonlight as a stage instruction,” says Silke Otto-Knapp about her landscapes, which are on display at Kunsthal Charlottenborg in Copenhagen.

Silke Otto-knapp, 13 Stage (moonlit), 2011.
Silke Otto-knapp, 13 Stage (moonlit), 2011.

Kunsthal Charlottenborg welcomes visitors to the venue’s autumn programme with four solo exhibitions. They include no less than two exhibitions by artists working within the landscape painting tradition – the Swedish artist Carl Fredrik Hill (1849-1911) and the German-born artist Silke Otto-Knapp (b.1970), who lives and works in Vienna.   

Silke Otto-Knapp’s signature style is her use of watercolour and gouache on canvas, which she applies and removes repeatedly. The result is a vein of painting with a dual nature: at first glance the paintings seem very flat, but at the same time they have a flickering, unsettled quality as if their subject matter yearns to step out of the paintings. This is true of her stylised landscapes and marine scenes as well as of her paintings of dancers and choreographed movement. The Charlottenborg exhibition features examples of both types of painting.  

Kunstkritikk has spoken with Silke Otto-Knapp about how she relates to the landscape genre, about her five years as editor with the British journal Afterall, and about her fascination with Ballet Russes, Yvonne Rainer, and other pivotal moments in dance where a radical change took place.

Silke Otto-Knapp under installering på Kunsthal Charlottenborg, København 2013. Foto: Katrine B. Mosegaard, Charlottenborg.
Silke Otto-Knapp at Kunsthal Charlottenborg, København 2013. Photo: Katrine B. Mosegaard, Charlottenborg.

What are we going to see?

The exhibition is called «Geography and Plays» after a collection of essays by Gertrude Stein. It is divided into three rooms that act as chapters. The first room sets the scene with a group of paintings in monochrome silver all of which show choreographed movement. The second room shifts the focus to landscapes and seascapes in shades of black and grey watercolour. I think of them as staged scenes that are backdrops and landscape paintings at the same time. I want them to appear moonlit but as if I had imagined moonlight as a stage instruction. The third room shows a large group of etchings organized in a grid made up of three motifs that continuously repeat from left to right, top to bottom. This installation of etchings is called «Three seascapes» in reference to a dance by Yvonne Rainer choreographed in 1962 and combines the staged landscape motif with a figure on a stage.

What does that mean – that you think of your landscape paintings as «staged scenes that are backdrops and landscape paintings at the same time»? What is the particular sensation/expression you are aiming for?

I am interested in the tradition of scene painting in relationship to landscape painting because of its clearly defined function. A backdrop is a painting that will be used for something in a specific context. Imagining this kind of restriction allows me to approach something like the tradition of romantic landscape painting and frame it in a different way. I am not interested in painting actual props or theatrical backdrops but instead apply their ethos to my paintings as a kind of distancing device. The painting still acts as a moonlit landscape but with a subtle shift in perspective, if that makes sense?

Your paintings of dance and dancers depict figures in choreographic poses from both modern dance and classical ballet. What is it about dance that fascinates you? Are there certain forms of movement or gestures that attracts you more than others?

Silke Otto-Knapp, Stage (North and South), 2012.
Silke Otto-Knapp, Stage (North and South), 2012.

I am very interested in those moments in dance where a radical change takes place such as the collaborative productions of the Ballet Russes in the 20s that bring together choreographers, artists and composers to work on ballet productions that challenge the conventions of ballet while still working within the restrictions of this very particular language. In the 1960s the Judson Dance Theatre with choreographers such as Yvonne Rainer, Trisha Brown or Steve Paxton created another such moment of change – directed against the spectacle and stylization of ballet and modern dance, and directly reflecting the political and social conditions of the time. A contemporary choreographer I am particularly interested in is Michael Clark because of the way he uses the vocabulary of classical ballet with its extreme discipline and formality to develop his own language that is indebted to this history but seems to reject it simultaneously.

In recent years, there has been a renewed interest in dance within contemporary visual art. Dance elements are integrated into exhibitions, but usually as part of the realm of performance. Are your paintings connected to this investigation into dance as performance?

I don’t think so. I am interested in the history of dance and its contemporary forms but my paintings operate within the pictorial space and trying to understand and negotiate its conditions and possibilities. The idea of staging in the context of looking at a painting is an interesting alternative to narrative for me because it implies an experience of space and time. In my paintings I am looking to construct a space that can be both two and three dimensional – concerned with both the surface of the painting and the illusion of space within the margins of a staged scene.

At Kunsthal Charlottenborg your paintings will be presented alongside an exhibition of the Swedish landscape painter Carl Fredrik Hill (1849-1911). Director Jacob Fabricius seems to have curated this particular juxtaposition with both of you in mind. Did you know of Hill’s work before you were invited? How do you relate to these paintings?

I knew a bit about Hill’s work but had only seen some reproductions of paintings and drawings. I thought of him mainly as a landscape painter and was surprised to find out about these almost surreal drawings that seem to depict inner states and externalised visions at the same time – somewhere between Edvard Munch and William Blake maybe. I like their economy of means – they have the immediacy of a sketch but are assured in their composition and choice of medium and colour. I am excited to see Hill’s landscapes in combination with the drawings of theatrical scenarios involving dancers and other characters. His work seems strangely contemporary or maybe it’s very hard to place in time.

Silke Otto-Knapp, tableau 1 (brading).
Silke Otto-Knapp, Tableau 1 (Brading), 2011.

How would you describe your working method?

I work in groups of paintings that inform one another. A group could start with a particular interest – something I read, saw or somewhere I visited. I collect images and pictures all the time and often return to motifs and ideas I have worked with before. For example, I recently spent some time on an island off the coast of Newfoundland and began to be interested in seascapes. At the same time I started re-reading the work of Elisabeth Bishop, an American poet who spend a lot of time travelling but grew up on the North Atlantic and wrote her early poems about the experience of the landscape. Her unsentimental and concrete approach to both language and subject matter led me to thinking about landscape painting and how I might approach it.

The actual painting process starts with a lot of drawings that I later transfer onto canvas. I use watercolour for both the drawings on paper and the painting on canvas. A painting begins as a continuation of the drawings but as it goes on turns into something quite the opposite. I use washes and layers that are frequently applied and removed. This process of removal creates negative shapes and spaces that I can build up until a tension is reached between the motif and the picture plane.

It is often noted that your paintings are marked by a certain flatness which probably stems from the many washes and layers being applied and removed again and again. But this expression, I’ve thought, also brings forward a sensation of «painting as photocopy», a quality that also underlined by the greyscale colour scheme you tend to employ. Is this something you can relate to?

Silke Otto-Knapp, figure(bending)
Silke Otto-Knapp, Figure (Bending), 2007.

I started to use black and grey pigments two or three years ago after replacing photocopies with drawings as my starting point for paintings. Before that I had worked from photographs much more directly, often using b/w photocopies as my reference. A large wall of photocopies was an important part of my studio set-up. For some of the historical dance and performance material I am working with, b/w documentation is now the only way to access the work, and books, magazines and photographs have the status of artworks. So the photocopy was all around but I never tried to reproduce it in the paintings. With the shift to landscape and an investigation into the role of light – particularly in a nightscape – the paintings started to appear b/w. I don’t intend to reproduce the aesthetic of a photocopy – that seems too much of an obvious gesture – but the choice of watercolour applied and removed in many washes and layers that results in an immaterial surface is certainly a very deliberate choice. I am not interested in gestural mark-making or the physicality of paint and feel more at home with a mechanical device such as a photocopier in many ways.

Since your recent seascapes are in fact inspired by residing next to the sea, I wonder if you would ever consider working in plein-air in the manner of traditional landscape painters – or, to put it differently, what do you take from the tradition of landscape painting?

I am very interested in the tradition of plein air and have actually led some workshops in the Canadian Rocky Mountains experimenting with contemporary possibilities of this tradition. While working in Newfoundland I produced a group of paintings that had no pictorial relationship with the surrounding landscape – the seascape paintings were produced back in the city – they are always filtered through the lens of a staged situation, for instance in referring to an actual stage-set, a historic character (like the Victorian botanist and painter Marianne North) or by using something like Munch’s stylised «I» moon reflection as a device. I did make some small studies of the landscape on the island – sometimes from photos or using the studio window as a frame. I am sure they have had an influence on the paintings I made once I got back home.

Silke Otto-Knapp, installation view 2, Kunsthal Charlottenborg
Silke Otto-Knapp, Three Seascape, 2013.

You were managing editor of the British journal Afterall for 5 years. How did you perceive your role as editor? Was it part of your artistic work, or were the two roles separate fields?

They were separate fields that informed one another. I was lucky to work for the journal in its very early years as part of a very small team which meant a lot of freedom and room to figure things out and experiment. I really enjoyed the editorial process, the dialogue with writers and artists and the production of the actual object. I learned a lot from working for the journal – and although my work in the studio always felt very separate, the editorial work has had an influence on how I think about it.

Why did you become an artist?

It’s an ongoing process.