An extract of my interview with the lovely and talented Robert Knoke, featured in the current issue of BITE Magazine

Bernhard Willhelm, 2008;
Rick Owens, 2008;
Bruce LaBruce, detail;
Kembra Pfahler, 2011;
Matthew Williams, 2011;
Walter Van Beirendonck, detail

German-born and based in New York, artist ROBERT KNOKE is revered internationally for his atmospheric portraits that immortalize some of today's cultural visionaries, from Rick Owens and Patti Smith to Gareth Pugh and The Kills. Conceived at the start of the 1990s, Mr. Knoke's expansive series places its viewer in a mindset of separate realties; his austere figures abstracted and displayed as portrayals of their concentrated energy. With honesty and sharp consistency, Robert Knoke has championed the importance of face and of figure. I spent some time with Robert to discuss abstractions, destruction, and the meaning of inspiration.

So Robert, tell me a bit about yourself. What brought you into the art world?
ROBERT KNOKE: Stupidity? (laughs) Well, my father was an artist and I grew up being at his studio all the time, looking at his work and trying to do what he was doing. When I got older, I realized that I had continued doing the same thing. So after my sixteenth birthday or so, I told myself that art is what I want to do for the rest of my life, no matter if I make a living off of it or not. That's it. Well, that's what I feel about art… the art world is a different story.

DR: Do you consider yourself part of that art world? What are your thoughts on the art world of today?
RK: Sure, I’m part of it. But selling my work is not the reason why I’m doing what I’m doing in the first place. It’s just funny to see that the importance of an artist is valued by how much money he or she makes. If you are successful money wise, you've made it. I think that any big business orientated world – art, music, film, fashion, etc. – is to be watched with a certain mistrust. People with money rule this world, not people with culture.

DR: Definitely. I think most fields have become far too money-oriented. People are blinded by it, especially in creative venues where it should be the complete opposite. Do you think the art world is dying, or does it have a future?
RK: Yes, of course it has a future! There will always be great art out there, no matter how bad the times and conditions are. As long as there is substance to it, everything is okay.

DR: Let's talk about your work. How would you describe your drawings? What artistic genre do you fit into, if any?
RK: Technically my work is in-between drawing and painting and it's about portraiture of course, although my work is not only about portraiture. I actually don't know the genre. Because my drawing style looks fast in its gesture, some people say my work is expressionistic, but I'm certainly not an expressionist. I'm very much interested in the abstractions that surround or destroy the people I'm drawing. I think it's a mix of all kinds of things that you can do on paper.

DR: And what draws you to those people to want to produce their portrait? How do you choose your subjects?
RK: When I first started the series, I thought about what kind of people I wanted to draw. I didn’t want to draw family members or close friends because it made me feel uncomfortable. I don’t like to draw people that I've known for a very long time, but I also didn’t want to draw a stranger that I have nothing in common with. That's the reason why I choose people mostly from cultural fields – other artists, musicians, writers and designers that I like very much. The series is a documentation of people I love and at the same time a sort of a self-portrait.

DR: So it's your interest in these people that reflects you personally in your work; the fact that they inspire you is a form of being represented through them.
RK: It’s not so much about representation of me or of them, it’s about pooling energy. It’s a certain energy that my subjects have that I feel connected to and that makes me want to produce a drawing. Most of my subjects are quite different from me, but there's something there that touches me. I’m not interested in a representation of myself through other people, nor representing my subjects. In that case, my work isn't really portraiture. I rather use my subjects to set free an atmosphere that I see, but that only works with certain people.

DR: Many of those people work in fashion, is the fashion industry of particular importance to you and your work?
RK: The drawings of the fashion designers just got the most attention, I think. Maybe because fashion is such an important cultural statement of our time and almost as important as art. Sometimes I think it’s even more interesting than what the art world has to offer right now. The music world is something that I follow very much as well. I think that if I do drawings of musicians or visual artists that I like, I should also draw some of my favorite fashion designers.

DR: Is every portrait you've created of someone you've met personally? Is this element of personal interaction a requirement for you?
RK: Yes, I meet all of my subjects personally to take their photographs. It's very important to have that personal impression, but I don’t like to have them sit for me when I do the drawing. It irritates me when I feel someone else's physical presence when I draw. I don’t like to be watched and I need to be alone. I can also work whenever I want without being dependent on my subject. That's one reason why I take photos first. I think another reason is that the photograph makes the subject more abstract. It’s the first step to doing that final portrait.

DR: I feel that you seem to somehow separate your subjects from their celebrity and give them almost a sense of anonymity, is this concept something you attempt to convey?
RK: I've actually never thought about that. Maybe it's because I don’t want to illustrate their personality or who they are and what they're doing. All I’m interested in is there appearance and what I can do with it. In that sense, my drawings really have nothing to do with my subjects.

DR: You use very simple mediums: markers, ballpoint pens, etc. There's a contrast between these materials that I think evoke a certain innocence and naivety against the mature, detailed portraits they produce, which is an interesting concept. You also work predominately in black and white. Was it an intentional decision to stay minimal?
RK: Yes, it was intentional. When I started the series, I just wanted to concentrate on the drawing instead of thinking about color and how to use it. Black ink on white paper is simple, and I wanted to keep it straightforward. Each drawing also stayed in just one format (70x100cm). But since the portraits developed over the last few years, I’m thinking more about color and have already used it in some of my recent drawings. I also use colored glitter, another cheap medium that I really like. I have glitter in all kind of shades.*

*Extract from BITE Magazine Issue Three, read the interview in full online here (pp. 16-23).
Robert is part of a group exhibition with Envoy Enterprises, NP Contemporary Art, and Mute Records entitled FG.Ft, celebrating the career of Frank Tovey/Fad Gadget, showing from today, March 1st to April 8th at Dixon Place, New York City, and hosts his own exhibitions this fall at New York's Envoy Enterprises and Cologne's Teapot Gallery.


Michele said...

Lovely, his work is stunning! Very inspiring stuff.

Duck said...

Love the portrait of Bernhard Willhelm! Captures the free spirit but also his darker side.