Artist Jas Knight in his New York studio. Photo by Jessica Pester
Q&A with Artist Jas Knight
“The aim is one of transcendence.”From his studio in Brooklyn, painter and draftsman Jas Knight looks to artistic traditions of the past as well as the world around him to create meticulous portraits and scenes of everyday life. In one of his paintings, a young woman in a sequined hijab tidies up a bed, alone except for the books on the nightstand and a provocative nude on the wall. In another scene, the blue glow of a laptop gently highlights the contours of a woman’s profile, a plastic jug of water and an ornately framed painting resting next to her sock-clad feet. On Sunday, January 21, Knight will be at the Museum to give a talk as part of our In the Artist’s Voice series. Standing alongside works by Botticelli, Rembrandt, and Sargent, he will share how he uses the styles and processes of old masters to reflect on the present. In this Q&A, Knight discusses his desire to make art that evokes a sense of the transcendent, the support he has received from followers on Instagram, and his newfound appreciation for the paintings of Titian. Old masters used materials like oil paint and gold leaf on linen and wooden panels for centuries, but they are perhaps less commonly employed today. Why do they hold such allure for you? I think these materials, oil paint for instance, are widely used. There are many artists who employ gilding, etc., in their images. My occasional use of iconographic motifs may be more rare, but I think the thing that distinguishes the work is my avoidance, nearly disdainful avoidance, of irony.
The subjects of your paintings and drawings are often, but not exclusively, women. In your paintings, they are usually beautifully lit by natural light or the glow of their phones or computers. What qualities are you looking for in a portrait subject? And what are you hoping to express about them? There is a long history of artists painting women, and I have rather unintentionally found this to be my dominant subject matter. I think the common denominator in terms of my interest in a subject is beauty. The only other criterion I tend to gravitate toward is the human subject. I’ve always been interested in people. As a painter, I hope to make my modest contribution to the beauty of the world. Your work has been compared to Vermeer’s. Do you see similarities with your work and his? Vermeer is the quintessential genre painter, and he is often referenced when people encounter works which elevate the mundane. He and artists like [Vilhelm] Hammershoi had a penchant for depicting solitary figures in domestic settings. From Jean-Baptiste Greuze to John Koch, the influence of the Dutch elevation of genre painting can be felt. Vermeer and his contemporaries, Pieter de Hooch for example, exploited a new market for nonreligious painting and more or less “modernized” the world of art. Are there other old masters whose work you look to again and again? In my genre works, I’m certainly looking to the Dutch masters, but also masters like the photographer Gordon Parks, Henry O. Tanner, or Joseph DeCamp. Autumn, by Jas Knight. Oil on canvas, 31 x 41 inches (78.7 x 104.1 cm). Image courtesy of the artist. © Jas Knight 2017 What aspects of contemporary life impact your paintings and drawings? The work of other contemporary artists? I tried and work very hard to create balanced beautiful paintings which will invariably have a somewhat contemporary “feel,” but the aim is one of transcendence. This goal is one of the reasons I think museums exist. There are indeed lots of painters doing good work, but I cannot spend too much time with any of it generally because I’m busy trying to create.
Elegy for Ethan, 2017, by Jas Knight. Oil on canvas, 24 x 28 inches (61 x 71.1 cm). Image courtesy of the artist. © Jas Knight 2017
Your portraits are rendered in such incredible detail, capturing everything from the curl of an eyelash to the glint of an earring. What’s your process like? Do you start with a quick sketch and then later develop it into a full-blown painting? I have several different approaches. Sometimes I prepare a drawing. Other times I just start painting on the canvas directly. If there is one unifying factor in my approach, I’d say that drawing, whether in charcoal or paint, plays an important role. From start to finish, how long does it take? I never know how long a piece will take. I used to keep up with the time, etc., but it began to seem pointless so I stopped long ago. Some of your work is left intentionally unfinished. Is this another nod to old masters? I believe the art of photography has forced me to consider more seriously my objectives in painting. The goal is not one of mere verisimilitude, and this affects the idea of a finish. The goal is to use the tools of tonality, color, and line the way a composer uses pitch. Do you ever abandon a work and return to it later? That is not common for me, although there may be long stretches where it remains unfinished due to a model’s schedule. Why do you use ornate historical frames for your depictions of modern life? I’m most interested in framing my work in Baroque frames of either Spanish or Dutch styles. In my opinion, the art of framing reached a high watermark during that period in those regions. I also really like the frames that Stanford White designed, but his designs are too expensive for me currently.
Fugue No. 2 in Ultramarine and Black (detail), 2017, by Jas Knight. Oil on linen, 28 x 40 inches (71.1 x 101.6 cm). Image courtesy of the artist. © Jas Knight 2017
You often post images and videos of your work in progress on Instagram. Has the feedback you’ve received ever affected the final work? Instagram has taught me that the idea of being devoted to your craft needn’t be antithetical to finding true support. Although I’ve never changed a work or done a work specifically for the ‘gram, I’ve benefitted immensely from the support of devoted followers who make it possible for me to continue to paint. In a recent Instagram post, you wrote, “It can be considered the privilege of the visual artist to utilize the gift of sight as a vehicle for joy, both in himself and others.” You also use the piano as a vehicle for joy. Does playing or listening to music affect how you approach visual art? Most people have bifurcated their lives into categories of things they live to do and the work that makes those things possible. As a painter I’ve taken the nearly disastrous gamble of not assuming the two of them to be mutually exclusive. As a child I marveled at the particles I could see floating in the air when the sun shone through a window. It is my belief that all of life can feel this transcendent. Music, architecture, taste, etc., are all things that we can use to evoke a sense of the transcendent. As a young artist, you trained in Philadelphia at the University of the Arts and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. During that time, did you ever visit the Philadelphia Museum of Art? Indeed, I did visit often. I even got a job in the museum shop at one point so I could spend more time there. I really appreciated the Mancini, the Degas interior with male and female figures, the Alma-Tadema, and the Dagnan-Bouveret.
Jamela, 2015, by Jas Knight. Oil on canvas, 11.25 x 15 inches (28.6 x. 38.1 cm). Image courtesy of the artist. © Jas Knight 2017
Inbox 1, 2014, by Jas Knight. Oil on panel, 10 × 13 inches (25.4 × 33 cm). Image courtesy of the artist. © Jas Knight 2017 On Sunday, January 21, you’ll be in Philadelphia to give an artist’s talk at the Museum in the exhibition Old Masters Now. What works do you look forward to seeing? I look forward to seeing the Titian and the Pasini.
I always ignored Titian because I didn’t feel his drawing to be strong, and I tend to appreciate strong draftsmanship. Recently, after looking at a Velázquez at the Met, I was struck by the similarities of Titian’s paint-handling to that of Velázquez. There is this economy in the amount of paint being used to great effect. I found myself staring at a Titian nude for quite a while. Alberto Pasini is an underappreciated painter of the nineteenth century. I love his idiosyncratic application of paint and the sun-bleached effect he is able to evoke in his small canvases. He also is very economical, achieving so much with so little. He relies on his masterful ability to imply in his depictions of miniature figures, horses, and architecture. What are you working on now? I haven’t counted the pieces I’m currently working on. There are a few on the shelves due to models’ schedules. I’ve also been drawing a lot recently. I’ve tried to slow down a little and work on no more than three paintings at a time.
Archbishop Filippo Archinto, c. 1558
Titian (Tiziano Vecellio), Italian (active Venice)
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Titian (Tiziano Vecellio), Italian (active Venice)
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About Jas KnightJas Knight was born in Hartford, Connecticut. His artistic talent was recognized at an early age—he sold his first painting at age seven and had his first one-man show at age eight. He later studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the University of the Arts, where he received his BFA in Painting. Knight’s work has been exhibited widely, including at the African American Museum and Seraphin Gallery in Philadelphia; the Samek Art Museum at Bucknell University; and the Bill Hodges Gallery in New York. Knight currently lives in Brooklyn, where he spends most days painting and drawing from life. Explore more of his work on his website or follow him on Instagram.
This interview was conducted by Sid Rodríguez, Interactive Content Writer, Philadelphia Museum of Art. It has been condensed and edited for clarity.