Stephen Knapp: The Art of Illumination


Written by Vince Carducci

The lightpaintings of Stephen Knapp are energy made visible. Their primary medium is light, which physicists define as a form of energy, observable to the human eye, made of moving charged particles with no mass that respond to electromagnetic force. Using micro-thin metallic coatings sandwiched between layers of glass, stainless-steel mounting brackets and electric lighting, they are artifacts of modern technology. And yet in their quest to represent universal principles of perception, what is in essence the time-honored search for the harmony of the spheres, they connect with traditional artistic media such as mosaic, stained glass, and Renaissance oil-paint glazing, all of which take light and color as embodiments of a deeper existential mystery.

The lightpaintings are the logical outgrowth of Knapp's longtime concerns as an artist. As a liberal-arts college student decades ago, he took up a camera and began experimenting with photography, a creative medium that uses light-sensitive material to record visual information. The reflective and refractive qualities of light continued to interest him as he began transferring his photographic images onto large mural panels in etched metal. This led to an involvement with ceramic glazes and mosaic tile, carved slate, and finally to works constructed of kiln-formed glass that are the lightpaintings' most recent precursors. Knapp now has over a decade of working with the various shapes, sizes, and finishes of tinted glass, mirror-polished stainless steel, and projected light that comprise his aesthetic lexicon. He commands a level of mastery that enables him to achieve a broad range of formal and expressive effects.

Smaller works, usually mounted on panels finished in smooth white laminate veneer, fit squarely within the easel-painting tradition. Descending Blue, a piece that is taller than wide, is lit from above like a portrait. At the top are complex shapes of glass, tinted in warm tones, mounted at angles close together not unlike the distinguishing features on a sitter's face, with the composition opening up into broad folds of blue and green as larger pieces of glass, spread farther apart, cascade down. Leading Edge is lit from the upper left and evokes landscape with its horizontal panel. The color cleaves more closely to verdant greens and aquamarines associated with the Maine seascapes of Winslow Homer. Both pieces extend well beyond the boundaries of the frame, moving off the wall and into the viewer's space, an effect heightened by the three-dimensionality of the work when seen from an angle.

The theatrical in Knapp's work emerges as a more significant element in the large-scale installations, often done for public spaces. Seven Muses, created for the Eisemann Center for Performing Arts in Richardson, Texas, spreads out across 3,000 square feet on the four-story wall of the building's main atrium. Color from the seven clusters of glass, metal, and light dances across the large space like a ballet troupe performing on stage. The element of time enters in with the way the effect of the work changes in response to the seasons and progression of day into night. That ambient daylight sometimes washes out the subtler color passages is part of the experience of the natural environment within which the work exists. As dusk dissipates into evening, the piece reasserts its presence all the more forcefully, holding darkness at bay.

Knapp's aesthetic can be experienced in its ideal form in more controlled environments, such as Temporal Meditations at the Flint Institute of Arts in Michigan. The work is installed on the rear wall of a proscenium stage in the museum's auditorium. Two clusters of illuminated glass are positioned on either side of center with reflections bouncing back and forth to visually connect them. From a distance the work appears to emerge out of deep space with the darkened wall supporting it disappearing into shadow and light. Up close, the apparatus of glass pieces and mountings is more apparent, adding a physical dimension to the work's ephemeral projections of color interaction. That the complexity of colors and forms, as intricate as the densest Jackson Pollock drip painting, is created by a mere two halogen lamps mounted at the top whose light is reflected and refracted by the arrangement of glass and metal below is all the more stunning for its simple yet elegant virtuosity. Colors interpenetrate one another, creating new colors by their mixture. The mirror-polished mounting brackets further capture and reflect color back into space. The work is carefully designed for the space in which it is installed, with projected light marking the limits of the floor, ceiling, and walls around it.

Besides their sublime beauty, these monumental works at their deepest level register community. In the case of Seven Muses, it is the constant, ever-changing stream of people who pass beneath it on their way to and from the building's many activities. With Temporal Meditations, it is the audience who gathers together for public events, be they lectures, films, concerts, plays, or dance performances. In both cases, the works become witnesses and even support systems for fostering social solidarity in an age in which individual self-interest appears to rule and the bonds of civility have broken down.

The lightpaintings can and should be situated within the lineage of recent art. The optical tour-de-force of much of the work establishes its affinity with the eye-bending paintings of Op Artists such as Bridget Riley and Victor Vassarely. And yet the more serene passages, in which translucent color washes over veils of other translucent color, evoke the lyrical abstractions of less-hyperactive modernist masters such as Morris Louis and Helen Frankenthaler. Perhaps the most appropriate forebears are the examples of Zen-like perceptual presence achieved by California Light and Space artists such as Robert Irwin, James Turrell, and Eric Orr. But Knapp can be distinguished from all of these artists in his use of light purely in and of itself not as a collateral effect of pigment or architectural structure.

The work is constructed from elements Knapp has devised over a period of years. Layers of metallic coating are applied to glass pieces to either refract or reflect color (and sometimes do both simultaneously) to produce effects of the saturation of hues, tonal mixing, and other components of the artist's palette. Glass is cut into various sizes and shapes that determine planes of color and other formal elements. The stainless steel apparatus for holding the glass, the configuration of which has evolved over time, can be adjusted for the needs of each composition and specific installation. This enables color beams to have physical depth and create a virtual universe of chromatic interactions. The result displays abstract art's affinity with music; the relationships of form, space, and color are akin to those of melody, time signature, and harmony. The lightpaintings are in fact symphonies of color. The entire process is quintessentially modern in that the artist developed these techniques totally outside the conventions of traditional artistic production.

In a literal and metaphorical sense, the lightpaintings explore elemental relationships. Light, as science instructs, is the measure of objects and events in space-time, which exists relative to the speed of light. Philosophical and spiritual knowledge is also measured in terms of light, the "bright" ideas of innovation and the illuminations of sagacity. This idea finds expression on a social and political level in that Knapp’s work is thus utopian in the best tradition of the avant-garde, which takes new art forms and methods as critical in fostering new ways of thinking, of helping to shed light on heretofore unrealized possibilities.

Knapp has cultivated his unique method for making art without any formal training in the discipline. He has a liberal arts education and is largely self-taught as an artist. While this may indeed be an example of natural genius, it is far from the ostensible inspirednaiveté of folk or outsider art. Knapp's process is instead heuristic, the pragmatic experimental method that drives scientific investigation. In Knapp's case, this will-to-art is also quintessentially modern in its self-determination, a way of working that has often been forsaken as the avant-garde has morphed into a new academy certified by the bachelor and master of fine arts degrees conferred by universities and art schools. Knapp’s background enables him to dispense with the conceptual baggage that can limit ways of making and looking at art due to expectations placed upon it. It also frees him from the gamesmanship so many artists are perforce required to engage in. That Stephen Knapp has been able to develop his own distinctive way of working in such a manner is all the more cause for celebrating his achievement.

Vince Carducci has written about art and culture for many publications, including Art & Australia, Artforum International, Art in America, ARTnews, and Sculpture. He is an adjunct faculty member in Liberal Arts at College for Creative Arts in Detroit and is currently completing a doctoral dissertation in cultural sociology and media studies at the New School for Social Research in New York City.