On ViewRenaissance Society
By merely looking you can feel the movement of forms in a painting inwardly in your body, just as you feel the movement of a dancer or acrobat by watching, a phenomenon called kinesthetic empathy by late 19th and early 20th century aestheticians like Robert Vischer and Theodor Lipps. Silke Otto-Knapp’s exhibition, however, ecstatically blurs your inward perception of movement with your real locomotion through the gallery as your eyes and body move with the paintings. The mural-sized canvases (all 2019)—low-key, black-and-gray watercolors depicting dancing figures with arms outstretched in protest, a recurring woman in various states of stretching and repose, and coniferous landscapes—are a continuation of Otto-Knapp’s long-standing interest in dance and nature, such as her paintings (2011–12) of choreographer Anna Halprin’s outdoor stage. This new work takes a performative turn as Otto-Knapp casts you in an open choreography among five paintings hung on freestanding walls, which like stage décor, are pristine on the display side and reveal bare plywood on the other, and a sixth work painted on a folding screen.
Partially occluded by a plywood wall, the first work you see when entering the gallery is the five-paneled Screen (Trees and Moon). It is the only work in the exhibition devoid of the human figure but the work’s positioning on the floor makes it like another body or dance partner before you. To orient your body to each individual panel, you mirror the movement of the screen’s zig-zagging pathway on the floor. This pathway reinforces the fractured geometry of the painted landscape—a slight contrast to Otto-Knapp’s previously more atmospheric, almost mystical, nocturnes, as in her Fogo Island series (2011–13). The angular branches and Cubist-like black-and-white reversals pay homage to artist and Ballets Russes set designer Natalia Goncharova’s five-panel screen Spring (1929), found in the nearby collection of The Arts Club of Chicago.
Pivoting counterclockwise, you encounter once again the painting on the other side of the freestanding wall that you saw upon entering: Group (reaching). Silhouetted women facing you stand nearly single file, limbs fanning out as if from a multi-armed figure; a similar grouping stands to the left, further back in space. The square format of Group (reaching) arrests your lateral movement as you stand with the dancers and inwardly feel their outward striving. By contrast, moving with the horizontal orientation of Group (moving), hung on a wall 90 degrees to and some distance from its companion piece, you process through space following the length of the work in solidarity with the standing silhouetted women on the right making their way to the left across three panels. Gendered with dresses in both paintings, their stark forms and grounded steps recall the all-women ensembles of modern choreographer Martha Graham’s early works.
Rounding the corner of another freestanding wall you encounter Forest, the three panels of which are each bisected vertically and show women piously tending to a forest of alternating coniferous and deciduous trees against black or white backgrounds. The painted geometry of the panels echoes the slices of brilliant white Chicago winter light entering from the vertical windows. The work’s diminutive figures in painted landscape evoke the Romantic sublime, and you also become aware of your own smallness in relation to the world outside the window.
In the back of the room is a space with two works arranged in an open right angle to each other: In the waiting room (9) and In the waiting room (7). Each features the same woman in a continuous narrative for which the plot never advances. In (9) she is a black silhouette against a dark gray background. She stands in various poses, stretching, bending, as if warming up for a rehearsal or behind the scenes—preparation as a form of active waiting. In (7) the woman wears either a white unitard or dress, along with a handkerchief-style headdress knotted into a bun in the back, and many of her poses are borrowed from dancers, including Yvonne Rainer, who the artist keeps photographs of in her studio. Despite the dance imagery, given the title “waiting room” you cannot help but make clinical associations. You pace uneasily back and forth between the works.
Themes of waiting, uncertainty, and doing what one can in the meantime loosely unite the three types of scenes in Otto-Knapp’s exhibition: workers in forests, dancers in protest, and the stretching woman. They are all actively waiting, doing something though the future success of their efforts is yet to be determined. You similarly move through this stage set, in a holding pattern, in solidarity with the figures in the paintings, at times inwardly empathizing with their movements, other times outwardly enacting them. You move with them beyond the boundaries of the canvas; the ending to their narratives and yours remain wide open.