Kris Knight

All of my paintings stem from my own personal stories.Kris Knight

Sometimes it’s easy to forget that painting is happening in North America outside of New York and Los Angeles. Lately, abstraction has ruled the canvases in most of the young galleries from the Lower East Side to La Cienega. But for the past several years, up in Toronto, 34-year-old artist Kris Knight has been working away on figurative works that are rich in romance, emotion, penetrating stares, and an unapologetic beauty that pulls the viewer into Knight’s soft, enveloping world. In his paintings, mysterious young men linger against leafy backdrops or seemingly disappear into their fragile environments—Knight’s youths seem both isolated and incorporated inside their ethereal surfaces, participants but also loners, as if the artist were capturing the silent rites of passage of early adulthood. Studying Knight’s work, it’s refreshing to see an artist who has bucked academic trends and gone his own way—picking up ideas for his color palette from 18th-century French figurative paintings and applying his own personal narratives and symbols into the growing mythology of his work. It is no surprise that Knight’s figures drew the attention of Gucci creative director Frida Giannini, who shares a similar fondness for sensuality and mystery in the human form. Giannini used the Canadian painter’s productions as inspiration for her men’s Fall/Winter 2014-15 collection—and Knight teamed up with the designer to create an exclusive pattern for the brand’s 2015 cruise collection. Knight’s design incorporated nocturnal flowers that in ancient Rome were believed to have magical properties—seduction, mysticism, sorcery, and vitality, all of which sound very Gucci.

In December, Knight opens a pop-up show with Spinello Projects during Art Basel Miami Beach, exhibiting a new series of figurative oil works that continue to focus on his particular obsession with the curious, inchoate lives of young men. As Knight was finishing his latest series, he spoke with Giannini about finding faces to paint, why mystery is important, how art and fashion can get personal, and how helping in the kitchen as a child can turn into an aesthetic calling.

FRIDA GIANNINI: Your portraits have been so inspiring to me—particularly the atmosphere and color palette. I was actually working with pastel colors for my men’s Fall/Winter collection when I came across your paintings, and your colors became such an inspiration. For the six months I was working on that collection, I felt like my team and I were living with your paintings every day. And then when I got to know you, of course, the relationship with the work became even deeper. Maybe you could talk about how you first became interested in art.

KRIS KNIGHT: I’ve always been interested in art. My earliest memory is actually lying on the floor on my belly just drawing, and my parents got really excited because I could color in the lines and add shading at a very young age when most kids couldn’t. My parents saw that I had an interest in art, so after that, all of my birthday and Christmas presents were art supplies. In a way, I think I was groomed to be an artist.

GIANNINI: How did you develop your color palette?

KNIGHT: I’ve always been interested in pastels. I’m always inspired by 18th-century France—rococo, baroque, things like that. But it’s only been in the last few years that I realized why I use pastels. It’s because my mom was a baker. I grew up in a bakery and I was tinting icing long before color palettes or swatches. With icing, you start off with a white base and then you add the tint. And that’s how I create my color palette on my actual painter’s palette, which is not the way that you should paint or, at least, not the way that art school would teach you to paint. You use white at the end. But I use white right from the beginning.

GIANNINI: As a fashion designer, I have to come up with colors every six months. For my job, it’s really important to change constantly. But the pastel colors are a signature for you. For my Fall/Winter collection, I wanted something lighter, something quite unexpected. You always expect dark, more velvety colors for a winter men’s collection. So going for the pastels was quite a unique experience. I think your pastels were, for me, a key to designing that collection.

KNIGHT: Thank you.

GIANNINI: For our collaboration, I wanted you to be completely free. When we sat together in my office, we started with something very iconic for Gucci, which is the flora pattern, and I wanted you to feel like you could interpret it however you wanted. So you looked at the history and the archive and you came back with this beautiful painting, which had the historical elements of Gucci, but you called it a “nocturnal interpretation.” I really loved applying this pattern to clothes—to dresses and bags. The results are really magic.

KNIGHT: I was definitely out of my comfort zone when I started. But with all of my projects, I care most about the narrative, just as much as the image. So for my flora, I wanted to create a story first. I started doing my research on plants of ancient Rome, plants that were used by women of that time to command power, especially power over men, whether it was for healing or seduction or poisoning. Gucci is very much about Italian heritage, so as a Canadian, when I think of Italy, I think of ancient Rome just because that’s what we’re taught in grade school. I wanted to bring my flora back to my early interests in Rome.

GIANNINI: Do all your paintings start with a narrative?

KNIGHT: All of my paintings stem from my own personal stories. Every time I start a new series, I basically do an essay first. I care most about the story. I see myself as a storyteller who makes images, and I applied this to my flora for Gucci. I wanted to create something that was both pretty and kind of dark, but that also had a story behind it. 

GIANNINI: That’s one of the things I love about your work—every one of your portraits has a strong character. I like the poetry and romance of them, but more that every subject is a character in a story. When I’m designing a collection, I keep a character in mind as well—it’s like a muse, an inspiration. It’s thinking about someone very inspiring that you want to dress. It’s important to have that person in my head when I design. And that’s why I’m always surrounded by images when I work. Like your paintings are. And you are someone who is constantly working with the human figure.

KNIGHT: Again, that goes back to childhood. I always painted faces. I use faces as a way to communicate stories and moods and atmosphere more than I think I could with landscapes or abstractions or anything else. My initial response to painting people was from being a kid and trying to paint my family or my friends.

GIANNINI: And you use your friends as models even today.

KNIGHT: I have a group of friends who I use a lot. I change their features a lot, too, because I see the people in my portraits as characters. I’m not setting out to reproduce the real, like a traditional portrait painter would. I don’t care about realism in the sense that I have to portray Johnny as Johnny. I’m more interested in using Johnny as a character in my story. Sometimes they’re collages of different people, and sometimes the faces are made up. It’s funny because I’ll go into, say, a grocery store, and I’ll realize that I’ve painted the person working there who I’ve seen for days and days without even realizing it. I’ll often think I’ve created that character on my own, but I’ve actually painted someone from the liquor store or the bank. It’s really me getting my ideas out by using the human face.

GIANNINI: I don’t have as many good-looking friends as you seem to. [laughs] You’re very lucky. But I can also find myself inspired by friends or the people around me. But as you said, I’m inspired more often by the personality. And then, of course, I work with models for the fitting of the clothes, but every single model has a different body. So it is never just one body I have in mind. I think it’s interesting to see how the same dress can be worn by many different people—and at the end of the day, that’s my job, to have clothes that can exist beyond one shape or frame or body type. In the majority of your portraits, your subjects are clothed. What interests you about clothing your figures?

KNIGHT: I want to keep my paintings as subtle and as intimate as possible without going into the nude. If I do a nude body, I’ll think of ways that I can do something different—I’ll draw a shadow or a porcelain pattern onto the skin to create something new. That’s how the face or the body becomes a vehicle for storytelling.

GIANNINI: Mystery is important, a bit of ambiguity. I like the fact that you can tell the sensuality of a person without it necessarily hitting you in the face. And that’s true for designing clothes as well. I try to work on the sensual part more so than the sex. Sex was a big part of fashion in the ’90s, but I think today everything is different; it is subtler in a way. I don’t know if it matters that I’m a female designer, but I tend to respect the body of the woman. I want to give a sort of accent or suggest an idea, but never be so overt. That’s why mystery is more of a seduction to me. Do you feel a personal connection to your work after you finish a series? Or do you feel like you can let go of them once you are finished?

KNIGHT: I see my paintings as my babies because I’m with them for so long. They’re all autobiographical in some way, so even when they leave my studio and never return, I’m still attached to them. I still have the story of them in my mind even if they’re now in a museum collection or in a collector’s house.

GIANNINI: It’s the same thing for me. Even when I see clothing that I designed five or ten years ago, I feel an emotional connection to it. There is always a memory behind this dress or this print or this color, not only in my professional life, but also my personal life. Looking back, there’s always a part of myself that goes into the collection. It’s part of the process. I think it also gives you the feeling of your growth, of your experience, of your background, because, of course, experience plays an important part of doing the job. And even if you try, you can’t separate your personal life from this job. It could be a dream. It could be a film. It could be something that you do the night before—it’s always going to enter the process. Tell me about some of the art, past or recent, that inspires you. There are wonderful portrait painters working today, although a lot of what seems to be happening now in painting is abstraction.

KNIGHT: The trend is very much about minimal abstraction for the younger generation. But for me, I love history. I love the portrait greats—Lawrence and Sargent and Gainsborough. And I’m hugely inspired by the Romantic and the neoclassical and symbolist movements, especially when the pretty started to get weird. I love rococo, just because it was deemed as superficial; the portraits are so glowing and slightly ghostly. There’s a subtext to rococo that I love and want to bring to my work. I tend to care more about history than the now. I’d rather have people look at my work in 20 years and not worry about what the painting trends were in 2014.

GIANNINI: I agree. And there is something about Pre-Raphaelite portraits that are so amazing for me—this kind of sharpness or the intensity of certain faces. And then my favorite paintings are the ones of Amedeo Modigliani because of his elongated figure. I’m also interested in American abstraction, like Rothko and Pollock. But I do actually find inspiration in new art, too. I’m always following the exhibitions of the [François] Pinault Foundation. Pinault is really a pioneer. For instance, I was quite impressed by the work of the artist Camille Henrot. My aesthetic tends to be more Romantic, but I was so impressed with the technological sophistication. But I’m with you, Kris—I grew up with paintings and colors and doing drawings of my parents and friends. And I think that’s how I still approach art and design.