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Issue 221

Dominique Knowles’s Equine Abstractions Act as Emblem for Intimacy

At LAYR, Vienna, the Bahamian artist’s hazy horse paintings focus on interspecies relationships within a personal and historical context

BY Francesca Gavin in EU Reviews , Exhibition Reviews | 17 JUN 21

In her 2016 essay ‘Horses, Mourning’, Gala Argent discusses the historic bond between human and horse, both biosocial mammals that form intense connections with each other and their own species. Zooarchaeologists have even found scarified horse and human remains in shared, bronze-age burial mounds, demonstrating our abiding affection for – and dominance over – our equine companions. An Altaic epic poem from iron-age Pazyryk culture portrays the grief of the two as intertwined: ‘When we are alive, you are my wings. When we are dead, we have one grief.’

This sense of interspecies intimacy and co-dependency is similarly evoked in ‘The Solemn and Dignified Burial Befitting My Beloved for All Seasons’, Dominique Knowles’s first solo exhibition at LAYR, Vienna. Meena (2018), a large-scale oil on canvas pinned directly to the wall, depicts an upright horse between two nude male figures – one standing, the other reclining. For the artist, who cites his childhood horse, Tazz, as his muse, these paintings are ‘metaphors for queer desire, or a quest for intimacy in general’, as he told Garage magazine in 2020. There is both beauty and melancholy in this attempt, which is reflected in the exhibited paintings’ muted tones. The show’s two titular works – smaller oils on wood panel – depict a chestnut horse against a brown background and a bird’s shadow fusing with a haze of deep earth tones. Both created in 2020, these paintings exude a sense of the collective grief of our current moment – an era of climate crisis, pandemic death and profound loss.

Dominique Knowles, The Solemn and Dignified Burial Befitting My Beloved for All Seasons, 2020, oil on panel, 32 x 42 cm. Courtesy: the artist and LAYR, Vienna; photo: kunst-dokumentation.com

Knowles can take up to four years to complete a painting. Break the Smoke in Deep (2016–20), for instance, is an intensely layered piece in which the artist at times overpaints the figurative elements with swathes of pigment, homing in on the atmospheric and emotional potential of the medium by applying washes of colour that he then spreads and scrapes over the canvas.

Consciously playing with the poetic, Knowles’s writing – which will be published in a forthcoming collection by The Poor Farm Press – emerges in his titles. A pink and orange abstract oil on canvas from 2016, for example, is titled: I remember being home and just watching a storm from the horizon Walk over like a cloak of death The rain was so thick that it looked like another cloud, a phantom Though other clouds near it would cause the sun’s light to bounce off of it, And create a different light It’s strange seeing a sunset and a storm together Soon the storm reaches the land and you’re in the rain, All under the glow of the sunset. The work is hazy, emotive and brings to mind an over the top, almost kitsch idea of the sunset.

'The Solemn and Dignified Burial Befitting My Beloved for All Seasons', 2021, exhibition view. Courtesy of the artist and LAYR, Vienna

The paintings are prevented from veering into sentimentality, however, by the Bahamian artist’s references to the legacy of modernist painting as seen through the lens of the African diaspora. Edgar Degas’s horses, Mark Rothko’s monumental dark abstractions, Paul Klee’s occult landscapes and Franz Marc’s expressionist animals are just some of the works echoed by Knowles. Reflecting an awareness of how these artists drew from African, Oceanic and Asian sources in their search for ‘authenticity’, Knowles reclaims their work as a source for his own take on history, animism and the cosmos, which ultimately goes beyond modernism to the roots of art and mark making. Animals were central elements in pre-historic cave paintings from Indonesia to Lascaux, living in tandem with humans but also subjects of worship. This exhibition highlights how far apart from our companion species we have grown.

Dominique Knowles's ‘The Solemn and Dignified Burial Befitting My Beloved for All Seasons’ is on view at LAYR, Vienna, Austria, until 31 July.

Main image: 'The Solemn and Dignified Burial Befitting My Beloved for All Seasons', 2021, exhibition view. Courtesy: artist and LAYR, Vienna

Francesca Gavin is a writer, curator and Contributing Editor for Kaleidoscope and Twin, based in London, UK.