Tom Knechtel

Tom Knechtel Lessons in The Theatre: Ejaculations, 1992.
Oil on panel, 41 x 50 1/2 inches.
As I think about myself as a painter and about my relationship to painting and to language, I keep returning to the tension between my public life as an artist and my private life in the studio. Though the two things are woven together, they're not necessarily congruent, and it seems impossible to chart that territory—it's so elusive, so subjective. I think of my painting as being filled with the stuff of literature and language: metaphor, rhymes, narrative, character. And yet, as I try to describe that relationship directly, what is produced is a slapstick routine: I slip and slide and fall flat on my ass. I suspect that what is being cultivated is a protective naiveté in order to shield what is for me, essentially, a very private practice. Ignorance of the world can't be used as an excuse: I went to Cal Arts in the early seventies, teach in two of the leading art schools here in Los Angeles and live in this city so that I can be around other artists whose work excites me, most of which work looks nothing like my own. If I try to step a little aside from the need to see myself as unique, my work can be described as fitting into an investigation of identity and sexuality which is very prevalent in this country. I can't claim to be crawling out of my cave in the hillside, blinking my eyes at all this far-fetched art stuff. And yet I find myself grappling with an extraordinary protectiveness about my life in the studio, a protectiveness which ties up my tongue, makes my mind go blank, makes me feel like a dope or an innocent.

Tom Knechtel Bardo, 1995.
Oil on panel, 13 x 10 inches.
I think this ersatz innocence is mixed with very specific pleasures, and perhaps those pleasures are more germane— certainly more interesting—than my claims to naiveté. Let me tell you about one of my favorite fantasies, so delicious to me that it nudges up next to my erotic fantasies. I live in a second-floor apartment, and what would be the bedroom is the studio, with a window overlooking the entrance to the apartment. When I'm gone, my cat sits in this window, waiting for me, watching the sidewalk. Sometimes as I come home I look up and fully expect to see, beside her silhouette, a great mass of faces looking down, eyes shining expectantly, waiting for me to get indoors, back into the studio with them. Huge wrestlers, elephants, water buffalo, Indian gods and dancers, commedia figures, monkeys, trained bears, geese —everyone stampeding from the window over to the door when they hear my key in the lock.

I often think of my painting as a kind of imaginary theatre company. I love theatre. My tastes are very specific, though. The theatre which draws me towards it is based on an interaction between the desire to suspend disbelief, the need to communicate and how temporal and impermanent that transaction is. I'm trying to articulate what is most private and pleasurable to me—let my try to do that instead by offering examples of what theatre thrills me: Ariane Mnouchkine and the Theatre du Soleil. Giorgio Strehler and the Piccolo Teatro. Charles Ludlam and the Theatre of the Ridiculous. Drag. Puppet theatres. Kabuki and bunraku from Japan, kathakail from India. Circuses. Commedia dell'arte.

Los Angeles, while rich in artists, is impoverished in this kind of stylized theatre based on a love of the artificial and the spectacular. The city is simply too tied to the film and television industry, and theatre is secondary to those industries, serving their needs with an endless stream of showcases for actors needing employment. It's not their fault, but I don't like going to see it. Only in the theatres listed above does my love of allegory, artificiality, spectacle, wonder and narrative find itself amply gratified; and since I don't get to see them often, that appetite goes roaring into my painting. The characters who inhabit my paintings (the ones who are all by the window waiting for me to finish typing this and come home to my studio) are not symbols but a repertory company of actors anxious to cram into the next tableau.

I mentioned narrative. That's one other element which feeds my life in the studio. I love the kinds of stories which spiral and meander, lost in the pleasures of narrative invention: fairy tales, The 1001 Nights, Tristam Shandy, nineteenth-century novels, pornographic fantasies. I suppose that I am not nervous about my love of literary content, the alleged bugbear of contemporary painting, because it's balanced by the intense pleasure I get from the physical language of paint, the visceral form of the material even when it's not engaged in representation. I get lost looking at paintings and drawings, my eyes gliding through them as if through a landscape. I get lost a lot in my studio: lost in pleasure, in doubt, in grief and expectation, in sex and other men's bodies, in an endless conversation with other artists and writers, in the surprise of my brush making the oily film do something I didn't expect, lost in the space between the paint being something that squirted out of a tube a minute ago and now it's a man doing his best to fit into an opulent ball gown.

How can I convince you of the primacy of my own pleasures and of my conviction that those pleasures are not merely onanistic but help to articulate the world?

Tom Knechtel is a painter living in Los Angeles. His next show will be at PPOW Gallery in New York in 1997.


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