Dean Knight’s sculptures and painted forms call for bodily intimacy. Their deliciously soft edges, determined smoothness and languid curves induce a quickening of the senses. Perhaps it’s my own pandemic-induced sensory deprivation talking – it’s hard not to feel nostalgic for touch right now – but I suspect it’s something more. His recent ceramic sculptures are dinner plate-sized dioramas made of parts that are vaguely biomorphic and geometric, and set upon chunky slabs. Other more explicitly figurative forms feature too, like cigarette butts, some tiny Greek urns, and an array of single shoes. These simple arrangements, formed of clusters of four or five parts held in the balance, have an enigmatic quality to them. This is, in part, due to their sidestepping of explicit narrative. But even more significant is the way that the dioramas enact an amassing of surface textures that are varied, tactile, and highly seductive. They warrant stroking, I’m sure of it.
1 - Name of work / Photographer / Date Reclining Figure | Dean Knight | 2019

This appeal to the senses is not only sexual. The bulbous buttock and phallic forms of Reclining Figure (2019) or Reclining Nudes (2019) – reminiscent of Henry Moore’s recumbent figures – are overtly libidinal. The Jessica Rabbit-style heel in a painting called The Cobbler’s Workshop (After Hours) (2019) also lends itself to a sexualised reading, the ‘After-Hours’ in the title further alluding to the latent salaciousness of the scene. But it’s also all rather silly and naive too. The stiletto, so often a fetishised archetype, is here rendered cartoon-like and bubbly in an innocent rosey blush. It is set at the end of a figure-of-eight stage and seems to be performing to an audience of oversized butter beans, while smoke rises from a lit cigarette (presumably the Cobbler’s) in an ashtray placed at the other end of the stage. And in Shoe with Gum (2019) all sense of the stack-heeled mule’s sexualisation is undone by the comical interjection of a bothersome peachy slug of bubblegum before it.

Reclining Nudes | Dean Knight | 2019

The Cobbler’s Workshop (After Hours) | Dean Knight | 2019

The Banquet | Dean Knight | 2019

The power of Knight’s surfaces stems from their eliciting a range of sensory responses, from the seductive to the childlike and the vaguely repellent. Some of his surfaces, like The Banquet (2019), are clean and smooth, rendered in a pastel sheen. They call to mind elaborate party cakes covered in decorative layers of thick, sickly sweet fondant icing resulting in constructions that are undeniably impressive but which also look artificial, unappetising, nothing like food at all. The array of contrasting textures in Shoe with Grecian Urns (2019), function slightly differently, and indicate varying degrees of human involvement. It is formed of a slab of black lacquer-like slip that is viscous, its finish reflective and refined. From it juts a stocky plinth-like dark brown block, little-worked, its texture tacky. On the block sits a dusty white stack-heeled shoe whose surface is dry, lumpy, maybe even scratchy, like plaster cast. Nestled at the base of the block are two miniature and crudely formed urns, their surfaces imprinted irregularly with fingertips. Elsewhere Knight’s surfaces are leathery, fleshy, rocky, rumpled, molten or rubbery. Their visible attributes lay bare the process of their making through particular actions of material and pleasure-seeking manipulation – pouring, polishing, stroking, pressing, rolling, encasing and so on.

But is it enough? We’ve become suspicious of surfaces, we’ve learned to read surfaces as manifestations of superficial appearances, as artificial veneers symbolic of capitalist commodification and sensory (not cerebral) allure. But, as Oscar Wilde put it, ‘It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.’ Knight’s luxuriating in surface texture, then, is a form of quiet resistance to certain current tendencies to lose sight of surface and aesthetic form in a calculated attempt to demonstrate one’s engagement in ideas and issues deemed sociopolitically more pressing or relevant. What for some might be considered mere adornment, however, for Knight is the substance of the work. It’s all highly reminiscent of Susan Sontag’s bemoaning of the way that, ‘The modern style of interpretation excavates, and as it excavates, destroys; it digs "behind" the text, to find a sub-text which is the true one’. The type of reading of art that Sontag rails against sees visible surface as something to be penetrated in order to uncover more weighty truths, whereas she implores her readers to linger long over the ‘sensuous surface of art’. This feels like a mantra by which Knight’s work lives.

Dean Knight | John Hersey | 2020

Rustic Window (Delphi) | Dean Knight | 2020

Dean Knight | John Hersey | 2020

The truth is, Knight’s work performs itself in its very surface. The making of a recent body of work, for example, is revealing. In this new series, paintings in faded hues on unstretched canvas combine with found objects and clay objects that come together to form a kind of relief. In one, Taverna (2020), Knight uses classical motifs such as vessels and a bunch of grapes, as well as a fragment of copper piping (presumably a nod to advancements in Roman sewage systems) set on a Mediterranean wash of horizontal bands in a spectrum of blues. In another, Rustic Window (Delphi) (2020), distressed terracotta ragging forms the background for a boarded up window. The window is made of garish pink hunks of clay, indented with cartoony wood-effect grain, and is topped with a crudely approximated painting of a classical pediment. Knight grasps for high and low cultural references concurrently: Classical Antiquity is seen through the bubbly aesthetic of an unworldly teen, while plasticine blocks butt up against DIY painting techniques and home plumbing. None of this is overthought. In fact he makes a point of avoiding rigorous research in favour of a hasty internet search or a vague recollection, a further performance of surface encounters.

This is precisely the point. Knight is drawn to the idea of his cultural references, and their implied associations, rather than the specificity of the references themselves. He is actively interested in superficial uses of materials, motifs and processes in order to challenge hierarchies that distinguish impression from substance, shallowness from rigour. As a result Knight’s vessels are empty; his wood looks like plasticine; and he happily makes use of silly puns (It’s Not Me, It’s Shoe). In a similar vein, the backgrounds of his paintings are executed in a deliberately weathered rustic style to provoke low-brow associations with the unrefined, the unprofessional, or the inauthentic. It recalls Sontag again, and her definition of the essence of camp as pivoting on ‘its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration’. Camp, is stereotypically associated with a surface level engagement, in thrall to the cosmetic, and a preoccupation with external appearance, above all in gay men. Sontag goes on to describe camp as a ‘badge of identity’. But this implies that it can be removed or replaced, that it is an external signal rather than an intrinsic quality. Instead, we might turn to Judith Butler’s groundbreaking analysis of gender which is worth quoting at length:

‘If gender attributes […] are not expressive but performative, then these attributes effectively constitute the identity they are said to express or reveal. The distinction between expression and performativeness is crucial. If gender attributes and acts, the various ways in which a body shows or produces its cultural signification, are performative, then there is no preexisting identity by which an act or attribute might be measured; there would be no true or false, real or distorted acts of gender, and the postulation of a true gender identity would be revealed as a regulatory fiction.’

According to Butler the external performance of gender attributes ‘constitute the identity they are said to express or reveal’. Following Butler, then, I see Knight’s surfaces not as superficial adornments but as externalised performances, intrinsic embodiments of an idea through aesthetic form.

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