Nature according to Knechtel: a traveling survey presents three decades of work by California artist Tom Knechtel, who uses animal, avian and altogether fantastical surrogates to explore the far reaches of human experience - Critical Essay

Nature according to Knechtel: a traveling survey presents three decades of work by California artist Tom Knechtel, who uses animal, avian and altogether fantastical surrogates to explore the far reaches of human experience - Critical EssayFifteen years on, Jeff Koons's glossy ceramic sculpture Michael Jackson and Bubbles (1988) still seems to many an appropriate totem for our celebrity-mad, superficial culture. The kitsch depiction of the pop star and his pet chimp as lounging twins in matching whiteface, lipstick and gold lame is a full-size send-up of a high-art odalisque that has been celebrated as an apt reflection of our current tawdriness and banality. Works with this sort of heavy irony--bombastic, immediate and largescale--seem de rigueur in kunsthalles, biennials and project rooms, and are critically justified, somewhat perversely, as crowd-pleasing social commentary, high-art wolves in populist sheep's clothing.

This tone has become so commonplace that it seems important to point out that there are other modes of irony which offer quieter, more intricate responses to contemporary life and culture. Rosalba (1989), by midcareer Los Angeles artist Tom Knechtel, is a small pastel drawing of the face of a rhesus monkey rendered with a delicacy and sensitivity that elevates anthropomorphism to a realm beyond that of Disney cartoons and celebrity chimps. Knechtel offers a fully rounded characterization of a sensitive, self-aware being who just happens to be a lower primate. As if imbued with rarefied wisdom, the monkey's slightly uptilted, highlighted face, rendered with white pastel strokes, emerges from the drawing's ground of brown handmade paper. The close-up view-point and off-center gaze of the subject put the viewer in the uneasy position of a voyeur. Knechtel confronts us with a spirit that seems to have transcended the limitations of her species.

Tinged with melancholy, this treatment of a primate--so radically different from that of Koons--reflects Knechtel's ability to open fantastical, fictional doors, engaging protagonists and spinning stories beyond cold fact and social critique. His theatrically orchestrated, painted tableaux expand the scope of the drawings to feature cavalcades of swarming, fanciful animal and human characters. Revealing the breadth of his 26-year career, 94 paintings and works on paper have been gathered by Anne Ayres, curator at the Otis School of Art & Design's Ben Maltz Gallery, in a traveling retrospective titled "On Wanting to Grow Horns: The Little Theater of Tom Knechtel."

In works including depictions of monkeys, bears, dogs, crows, goats, elephants and a particularly horny rhinoceros, Knechtel has explored a range of animal qualities, from innocence to brutality, guided by a deep respect for both the mysteries of their inner lives and the violence of their instinctual responses. He often scrutinizes the fleshly nature of animals, mining for metaphors. The sensuous crayon drawing Under the Elephant (1995), for example, depicts an extremely tight close-up of a massive elephant's face. Seemingly looming over the viewer, the beady-eyed beast with thick, ribbed trunk and ominous tusks appears ready to ravish. But, characteristically, Knechtel mitigates the drawing's heaviness with a light touch; appearing in the lower left corner, the end of the elephant's trunk is heart-shaped. This hint of sentimentality provides the cue for reading the atmospheric drawing as a wryly coded celebration of sexual readiness.

Knechtel has also investigated the attributes and nuances of gay identity with a sophistication and complexity that might best be described as literary, though he avoids straightforward narrative. One early panel, First Love (1988-89), exemplifies the "allover" theatrical nature of his work, presenting a cast of animals, automatons and puppets in a banner-strewn pavilion featuring a fantastic dragon's-head ornament. A naked boy looks on from the right, pondering the bizarre, sexually charged antics on the dreamlike platform. Significantly for Kechtel's entire oeuvre, the work seems to conflate incipient romance with theatricality, clearly the artist's "first love."

As Knechtel has stated in interviews, his works adopt the concept of a repertory company, with a recurring ensemble of childhood or adult selves, animals, jack-o'-lanterns, putti and various pairs of intertwined wrestlers. The hyperactivity of Knechtel's tableaux acts to deflect narrative resolution, as if the artist were using the diverse incidents to test out his own feelings and desires. The loosely structured allegories operate as depictions of complex, even hermetic realms beyond the arena of conventional social interaction.

The meticulous rendering of the many detailed figures demands intimate observation, while the accrued particularities deepen the meaning of the composition overall. In contrast to the instant hit of photo-text graphics or one-liner art, these "inside-out" works must be read and considered. The retrospective serves the artist well, since his works are more easily grasped en masse. Drawings that functioned as studies for individual characters in the ensembles help flesh out subthemes of the larger, busier compositions. Even the early works--often willfully enigmatic or hesitant in tone--establish motifs that help set the stage for the operatic extravagances to come.

Knechtel's hermetic sense of self makes for a peculiar yet compelling notion of identity, one determined by physical needs and sexual desire. The small, exquisite oil tondo The Moon (1990) presents a squatting, sleeping ape with an erect human penis and an exposed heart whose arteries extend beyond the body as tree branches. Demystifying and grounding the Catholic symbol of the Sacred Heart, Knechtel presents a decidedly corporeal entity connected to the physical world. The six tentacles of this sprawling circulatory system provide a home base for small animals, birds and insects, all engaged in feeding off each other. Knechtel renders the body as a kind of microcosm that intimately houses the predatory domain. The body and its systemic extrapolations--its open heart, erect member and parasitic creatures--delineate a self-contained natural world driven by fierce instinct.

Notwithstanding their careful execution, Knechtel's works describe a notion of the sublime that is rooted in dark, urgent, physical nature. While offering little spiritual succor, the works seem to stave off despair with promiscuous sexual energy and implacable good humor. The larger Rabelaisian compositions of the '90s examine sexuality as a kind of generative compulsion. Beneath the subdivided proscenium arch of Lessons in the Theatre: Ejaculations (1991-92) is a murky lower region dominated by a large translucent unicorn/rhino. The creature watches a tiny projected movie of wrestlers while his huge penis emits a stream of semen populated by a fisherman and tiny silhouettes of seaside houses. Nearby a boisterous merman and mermaid holding a crowned cherub herald the ongoing sexual climax.

On a stage above, a masked griffin flutters in death throes, while amid a host of strutting entertainers, a caricatured Zero Mostel in top hat and high heels stalks offstage with a pistol as he quotes from Ronald Firbank in a dialogue balloon. In this mannerist fantasy, excess is all; another of the costumed performers utters the Latin text "Veni, veni, veni" (I came, I came, I came). The work's verbal ejaculations lighten the relentless sexual activity, offsetting the disturbing frenzy with campy humor.

Over the course of its 7 1/2 feet, The Flood (1993-94), a work in four discreet sections, sweeps viewers into a surrealistic orgasmic maelstrom. Sea foam and a large whirling wave submerge Renaissance-style domes, while muscled, skirted satyrs on horseback attempt to ride upstream. A personal ad ("Prof GWM 44 6'2" 210 N2 jazz, beach, quiet times ...") in the form of a small curved ribbon of text provides the subtext for this display of nerve-wracked excess.

Besides a deep knowledge of Western theatrical, illustrational and figurative traditions (with particular interest in artists such as Jacques Callot, Cruikshank, Charles Le Brun, William Blake and William Dadd), Knechtel has long been fascinated by Asian art, particularly the theaters of Kabuki and Kathakali. In the late '90s, a number of Knechtel's works employed the acidy colors and flattened sense of space of Rajput miniatures.

Several works depict clusters of Third World open market stalls as the settings for strange still lifes. The oblique, moody tableau, Tinglado (A Ghost Story), 1996-97, seems to be a behind-the-scenes look at a doomed relationship, staged about a deserted ramshackle market given over to roving dogs. On a brown field, the depicted symbols and incidents hint at a shaggy narrative of abandoned prospects and betrayals, while at the top of the painting, executed in garish pink, yellow and lavender, an inverted array of embracing male couples suggests the heavenly match that didn't happen.