People Person

Looking at Bob Knox's "Non-Fiction Paintings" at the University of Houston's Blaffer Gallery, you might get the idea that he doesn't much like people. The subjects of the earliest paintings in this show are the interiors of houses, of rooms as sleekly modern as only 1950s decor could make them. But there are no people in these rooms -- only an air of expectancy. The more recent paintings are exteriors, scenes of New York City, mostly at night. But it's a strangely uninhabited city, seen through a gelled lens or from a great height. It is an abstract city, at a remove from the immediate and the quotidian.

Organized by Mary-Kay Lombino, curator of exhibitions at the University Art Museum at California State University in Long Beach, and Blaffer director Terry Sultan, "Non-Fiction Paintings" introduces an artist of quiet, sly intelligence. Knox was born in New York City in 1953 and received a BA in studio art from Wesleyan University in 1975. Further studies took him to L'Ecole des Beaux Arts in Rennes, France, and to the State University of New York -- Purchase. He spent his early career working as an illustrator and regularly contributed cover art to The New Yorker. In one of these covers, a pastiche of the Hudson River School that is reproduced in the exhibition's catalog, a 19th-century hiker stands on a rock outcropping above the Hudson, gazing on an isle that we recognize as Manhattan -- the trees form the familiar late-20th-century skyline. That should give you an idea of the kind of wit we're dealing with here.

Knox's source material is photographs. The paintings of interiors are derived from illustrations in architecture and design magazines from the 1950s and 1960s, and lately he's been collecting aerial views of New York City. He says he finds it liberating to work from found images, and he's drawn to photographs that already have an inherent formal, even abstract, composition. He photocopies the picture and then begins to play: perhaps some cropping to strengthen the composition, swabbing paint in the margin to match color, or making notations about size or adjustments to pictorial elements (some of these studies are included in the exhibit). He doesn't project these images onto the canvas; he makes these paintings traditionally, in acrylic, working from the photograph. The image is the starting point, not the whole point.

The earlier paintings of interiors would be antiseptic were it not for two things: the range of Knox's palette and their titles. Summer in Rye (1998) is the most straightforward here: a pleasant little bedroom, the spread on the simple bed matching the fabric of the chair beside it with both echoing the color of the wallpaper. A pink frilly-curtained window gives view to a sunny, manicured lawn and garden chairs. It's difficult to decide if the painting is ironic or nostalgic. But things get more interesting just around the corner with Eddie's First Wife (1996), the earliest painting in the show. We're looking into a kitchen, all white and pale greens, everything neatly in its place, and white flowers peeking in the window. But wait -- not everything's neat. A cloven head of cabbage sits on the countertop, near two pints of strawberries beside the sink. On the opposite side of this domestic scene, on the stove, two cups and saucers wait for tea or coffee. And in the center of the picture, we find the shortcake to go with the strawberries. There's a hint of narrative here, an interrupted one, but it still doesn't really help us with the enigma of the title.

The plot thickens with The Abduction (1997). Now we're in the backyard, looking across a flagstoned and furnitured terrace at open French doors leading into a blazingly lit house. Of course, the title tells us that something terrible has happened, and every light in the house has been turned on to sound the alarm. But the more you look at the painting, the less interesting the title is, as well as the impulse to read a story in it. What's fascinating is the way space becomes confounded. It's increasingly difficult to read the central room's demarcation, to distinguish between inside and outside. Do the steps up to the doors lead inside or to another outside area? If outside, why is it so brightly lit while the terrace is dark? And where the hell is all that light coming from, anyway? What's abducted here is perspective, as the picture breaks into abstraction, into planes of color and distinct formal elements, and begins to tell a different story.

The more recent city-at-night paintings push this tension between representation and abstraction further (one is even titled Abstracted Abstraction). In X (2003), we have a helicopter pilot's view of Times Square, but the vertiginous angle skews our perspective on the buildings and almost forces us to focus on the formal balance that the titular graphic made by Broadway crossing Seventh Avenue provides. Blue Poles (2001) is another view of the city, this time looking south from the Empire State Building. The title is cribbed from a Jackson Pollock painting, but the resemblance is like that between second cousins once removed who happen to share the same surname. Still, this painting probably does more to explain Pollock's drip paintings than any critic could. The many lights in office windows, the gleaming traffic of Broadway and Fifth and Sixth avenues coursing through the painting, the dark matter of the buildings and the Hudson: all the frenetic energy of the city resolving into a coherent whole, as Pollock's busy drips and skeins of paint resolve into all-over compositions of surprising peace and calm.

Knox calls these works "non-fiction" because he takes the images from the world we inhabit and think we know. But, as with a good work of literary non-fiction, these paintings offer a more nuanced view of what we think we know. And they are very democratic. They don't compel the viewer to a particular interpretation; there's room for discussion, for other opinions. Maybe Bob Knox likes people after all.

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John Devine