Short Features

The Smither Collection at the Menil: Solange Knopf’s Spirit Codex No. 14

To coincide with the opening of As Essential as Dreams: Self-Taught Art from the Collection of Stephanie and John Smither, the Menil has published a catalogue that explores a distinguished personal collection of self-taught artists’ works, from carved balsa wood and hand-formed pottery to oil on canvas paintings and ink drawings on found supports. ​Below is a sample of artwork included in the show and an excerpt from one of the catalogue’s essays.

As Essential as Dreams: Self-Taught Art from the Collection of Stephanie and John Smither, by Michelle White with contributions by 11 experts in the field writing on each of the 12 featured artists, has 114 illustrations and is available in the Menil Bookstore.

Solange Knopf uses the most basic, direct, and intimate of media—drawing—to create work that is at once intricately detailed and immersive. Her artistic practice did not emerge until, after a series of traumatic events, she was hospitalized for severe depression in 1998, when she was in her forties. This embrace of art later in life is a familiar trajectory among self-taught artists, though Knopf’s entrée into the art world via Facebook is decidedly atypical.(1) The emotional crisis left her with a need to, in her words, “express myself, to break out of everything that had been confining me and to finally, fully live my own story.” Art, she has said, “became the means by which to recapture my own identity,” and she has continued to draw obsessively since being discharged.(2)

The majority of Knopf’s work consists of large sheets of paper filled with fanciful depictions of floating figures and faces, beasts, and vegetation.(3) Eyes, circles, and snakes consistently reoccur, as do naturalistic motifs with a dark, almost nefarious undertone. Working in solitary silence and often at night, Knopf creates her deeply personal work without advance planning. For her, art making is a process of discovery, and she has described it as “a meditation where images appear to me one after the other.”(4) She begins with an intuitive assortment of lines, forms, and colors and then, she says, “I stand back and I look and the first images come to me, [and] I register them on the paper … and all this I begin again as long as it flows … until the moment I can’t see anything more to add.” Her drawings are layered, heavily worked and reworked, evidence of the compulsive nature of her practice, as can be seen in the area around the white flower in her 2014 work Spirit Codex No. 14. In discussing its creation, Knopf recalls that after applying washes of acrylic paint and making marks with the paper in one orientation, she then turned it so that other images—leaves, feathers, a dragon, and a face—appeared. This method of rotating the paper and the repeated search for new forms evoke the automatic techniques practiced by the Surrealists, ways of producing work in which the artist suppresses conscious control and allows the unconscious mind to take over.

Spirit Codex No. 14 is part of what will likely be an ongoing series that Knopf dates back to 2012. Two oval forms dominate this piece, spanning nearly the entire length of the paper, which is nearly six feet tall. The left oval contains an unnerving group of floating eyes above three mysterious circles and a snake with teeth, recurring motifs that hint at an ambiguous mythology.(5) The right oval appears as a figure with an austere, stylized face. Leaves and vines cover what would be (or perhaps is) the body, and a batlike figure is perched atop the head like a crown, its wings open. Hung on the wall, the figure’s face is well above the viewer’s, and the scale produces an intimidating experience. Stylized, frontal visages and framing borders appear repeatedly in the Spirit Codex series, and the drawings feel, if not static, then contained, like pages from an illuminated manuscript.

At some point during the creation of Spirit Codex No. 14, Knopf recalls being seized by “a need to fill the entire surface,” and covered the paper with floral and circular patterning in graphite and colored pencil. Since the obsessive density of Adolf Wölfli’s work came to the attention of the art world in the early 20th century, this horror vacui, the fear of empty space, has been identified as one of the defining characteristics of self-taught artists. The circles that fill Spirit Codex No. 14 are loosely drawn, overlap, and have “tails.” The human touch is always apparent in Knopf’s works; even in drawings that appear seamless from afar, up close her hand is clearly visible, the individual gestures legible.

For Knopf art making is not about the end result; in fact, she never draws with a finished work in mind. “I never make plans,” she says. “I work with the unknown.”

Related exhibitions

Jun 10 – Oct 16, 2016
Main Building
As Essential as Dreams: Self-Taught Art from the Collection of Stephanie and John Smither