Heinz Peter Knes

( Text )
intimation allover

Museo Tamayo, Mexico City, 2015

Unsecure Images

Encountering the exhibition and attendant publication, intimation allover at the Museo Tamayo gives a broad catholic understanding of the work of German artist Heinz Peter Knes. Photographs from many aspects and periods of his work, decoupled from their original contexts, liberated from the instrumentalized nature of their coming into being. To the casual viewer the works can be placed in various nominal categories: landscapes, portraits, nature photography, travel documentation, works concerned with cultural historicization and display, abstractions that are studio-based, and abstractions delivered via the intensity of the close up. Yet the show sets itself up as an intimation machine, making these categories less interesting than how the photographs accrue meaning and force through their relationships and sequencing on the walls. Knes installed the work in single rows of framed photographs, a classic one could even say conservative display, until one realizes the determination that underscores the decision.

As Knes states in his conversation with curator Juan Gaitán elsewhere in this publication, there is a general mistrust of photographic images, and so we establish “devices for securing the image.” These devices might include formal series (think Robert Frank’s The Americans), genre-based distinctions (portraiture, landscape), field-based categorizations (fashion, art), or art-historical framing (post-conceptual, documentary). Knes has benefitted, but also been constricted by these categorizations in a terrain where each representational frame that he approached then encroached upon his ability to express.

Indeed, since the 1990s the artist has occupied a plethora of roles, from underground fashion photographer, to icon of Berlin’s gay-subculture, to portraitist and fine art photographer. He has collaborated on numerous projects with artists and friends, and navigated a variety of placements as an artist, each managing to secure his photographs within an accepted and digestible representational frame. It would be wrong to call Knes a shape shifter: if the exhibition proves anything it is that the sum of the photographer’s overall production out maneuvers its parts. The artist has traversed the various roles with which he has been presented while maintaining his own skin, trying this garment and then that, yet refusing to settle finally on a look.

One Wall

In this exhibition this becomes plain on a conceptual level through the ways in which work from many periods and projects by the artist are placed together in a new and present relation. Take one wall in which two landscape orientated large prints bookend two portrait style prints grouped at center [See pages x-x]. To the left, Forbidden City, 2014 is a close up of a large metal pot found at the entrance to a palace inside the home of the former Emperors in Beijing. The work features a gold-covered surface with numerous dark scratch marks hatched across the surface. To the right, Imprint, 2012 is of a textile stained by fluid and found on the former site of a woodshed near Knes’ family home in rural Franconia that the artist has returned to again and again over the last 20 years. These photographs function as landscapes and abstractions, they convey the sense of change produced by man-made or natural elements (the scars on the jar, the stains on the textile), and they can also represent two very different kinds of abjection: the decline of empire, and the loss of a childhood refuge. At the wall’s center are two portrait-oriented prints. On the left is Simone and Bo, 2003, a portrait of Knes’ friend the artist Simone Gilges and her son Bo. This work first appeared in the magazine Basso, a publication by a largely male-gay collective in Berlin. There is an enjoyable gender confusion to the subjects, a refusal to land comfortably on a normative spectrum. Simone might be a man dressed in glam rock attire, or a woman playing butch. It’s a Utopian Madonna and Child, representing a gender-queer vision of family and identity. Visually it is placed in strong relation to the work at right, Intimation of a Standard, 2015 a blurry color shot of an hourglass-shaped blue object hanging in a utilitarian manner over some steps. The object might be a construction site container of some kind or even a lab instrument. The empiricism suggested by documentary photography is elided by the lack of focus, as the image is abstracted and also displaced. This work is one of a number by the artist that attempt to directly dispel any associational logic or genre-based placement, photographs that act as a control, bringing the artist out of whatever representational and/ or formal frame he has begun to pursue. Collectively then, with this one wall one engages a plethora of formal, geographic, memory-based, social and political ideas and relations. Of course, most viewers will not have access to this level of detail, but the play of colors, material, and abstraction –of selective lucidity and determined ambiguity— all accumulate to something nuanced and rich, this wall has been intimated all over.

Knes as Always Already Mediated

On my first visit to the artist’s apt in Berlin I remember being fascinated by an early series of his photographs titled E.M.T. in MSP. This work from the mid-1990s depicted the life and surroundings of Knes’ family in rural Franconia: color images of his younger siblings and their friends knocking around listlessly, passing time. The photographs had a natural quality that by that point could be seen as entirely mediated: the authentic poses of the intimate, the near-saturated colors, the simple quality of sun-dappled flesh and idle play all co-opted a priori by the aesthetics of fashion and art photography. I know what I felt most distinctly on my first encounter with this work was the remarkable way in which he negotiated the fact that his work had come after the work of artists such as Larry Clark and Nan Goldin. Each in their own way had carved out a space in which to document the various intimacies of their personal communities: fine art and fashion had already assimilated their various approaches. And so in a way E.M.T. in MSP was an inversion of Clark’s Tulsa or Goldin’s Ballad of Sexual Dependency or a variety of other precedents, those series that were foundational to a revised photographic aesthetic. Here Knes brought the auratic quality of that ‘natural’ aesthetic (it's associations in fine art and fashion) to the family, to the ramshackle country town. It was a refreshing vision. Let’s not call it a reclamation, in some senses it was an elevation, it was photography in its purist state: decoupled from product placement, but enriched by that association.

Fashion Fictions

Knes entered the art world making images of his family that were conscious of precedents that had been absorbed by fashion and turned into a style. The images were made to function as art, even though he readily allowed them to be read as fashion. As Knes shot work for fashion houses, most notably the Paris boutique Bless, or worked on commission for various magazine. E.M.P. in MSP had a strange parallel life, a rumor, lending a cultural cache to his commercial photographic endeavors but also aligned with them, always already contaminated.  For a Nike shoot for the magazine Purple F/W 2006 the artist combines unlikely still lives taken in his apartment of Air Max sneakers surrounded by domestic bricolage, propping up clothes racks, or as semi-functional flower pots. There are black and white images of teenagers playing in the woods, a girl suspended in a tree, free as the air, and amongst them an image that has formed the core of E.M.P. in MSP, the woodshed where Knes’ siblings played, which he has returned to again and again, even after it was burned to the ground. So the woodshed lends legitimacy to the fashion shoot, is absorbed by the Air Max brand, and perhaps the opposite is also true: the brand is absorbed by the aura of the artist, just as it becomes part of the artist’s home. Such imbricated relations are clearly the goal of the shoot. As the magazine put it, they asked Knes to, “go from  his studio, to a museum, to the forests of Berlin—from private, public, and cultural spaces out to the peripheries into the land.”

Self-Portraits as Route to Biographic-Aesthetic Development

As Knes himself has stated in various venues, his work from the beginning proceeded through personal narrative, and it is instructive for an understanding of the artist to trace one consistent aspect of his production: the self-portrait. According to Knes, his first photograph was the self-portrait 1989, 1989. It features a head shot of teenage Knes, handsome, self-aware, pale skin, red lips, tossed blond hair all against a mysterious black background suggestive of bad behavior: an impossibly perfect branding of the sexy though dangerous Franconian youth.

In Self-portrait with Scars, 1996, some seven years later, Knes has entered young adulthood and stands a sexual being naked looking out, hair askance, toned body, a scar near his appendix and two more incisions on his left arm. Even at this moment of physical ascendancy, mortality and mutability is invoked by the deliberate looking scars. Living in Berlin he becomes a regular contributor to –and pin-up for— the cult Amsterdam gay-zine Butt. Reaching the apex of underground sex God, his headshot is featured on the cover of Butt: Issue 6 in 2003. As the zine’s byline states, “Nobody shoots sex like Heinz shoots sex. What’s more, Heinz looks good even when he looks bad.”

Coinciding with his move to digital photography in 2007, Knes begins a series of cut pieces, making incisions on new and old prints, removing strips of developed paper, often following some simple patterned logic. For example he excavated a series of parallel striations down the vertical surface of „101“ , 2007 a photograph of the artist’s fake Ray Bans inserted in a cardboard backdrop. As photographer used to developing in the darkroom, the move to digital had represented a haptic loss for Knes, while the process of scarring the print imbued it with a new charge. If this work is a self-portrait then it is a transitional one, breaking from the narcissistic realm of previous self-representations. It is as if the incisions of Self-Portrait with Scars have become the subject, a profound cutting apart of the masks and mediating structures that have made up the image of the past Knes. This project gains elegance from its contextual placement within the artist’s oeuvre, presenting an ineffable tryst between form, process and identity. The disassembly of the gay icon Heinz continues with Golden Snake, 2010. Here though the process is initiated by the public not the artist. The photograph depicts a cover of Butt Issue #6 weat-pasted to a toilet wall at The Cock, a raunchy gay bar in Manhattan’s East Village. Knes’ face has been peeled by successive patrons, a collective gesture that appears expressive and spontaneous when paralleled with the more ordered photographic incisions of the artist’s cut pieces. As with those works, the patrons are participating in the erosion of the fixed image, inviting perhaps the reassembly of roles, genres and positions. 

In after Contessa di C. 2013 we see another self-portrait of Knes, a photograph of his crossed legs and feet. There’s an easy resolve that speaks to a new confidence in his role. The artist is no longer concerned with the deconstruction of an image, or with conveying the mechanisms by which the photograph produces meaning and ideology. Which is not to say that the image is unmediated, it conjures the iconic Stephen Shore image, Room 125 Westbank Motel, Idaho Falls, Idaho, July 18, 1973 in which the artist’s feet recline on a bed in a cheap motel in front of a television screen. Shore’s workmanlike sneakers have been replaced by Knes’ socks; the television gleaming in the background is in Knes’ version an indistinct and cozy interior. Knes came to his title later, reminded of the 19th century collaborations between Italian Contessa di Castiglione and photographer Pierre-Louis Pierson that included (among hundreds of images of the Contessa in various staged poses) photographs of the Contessa’s naked legs and feet. The Contessa’s nudity required that she not be recognized and so resulted in two parallel limbs divested of a body or face. In contrast, Knes’ feet are covered: in the 21st century what could be more subversive than a pair of black socks?

Travel Traces

As evidenced by numerous photographs in the exhibition Knes has travelled widely in recent years, engaging in artistic collaborations, book projects, exhibitions and research. Cumulatively, these photographs have a diaristic quality, less concerned with demonstrating the artist’s cosmopolitan travelling chops, than pursuing and expanding on themes he’s long explored. In the post-Internet era, the world has become virtualized into a horizontal archive to be accessed, curated, and (re)distributed. Social media, Facebook feeds, Instagram, Tumblr all lend themselves as platforms to the collection and sharing of this information. Time and distance have collapsed into a series of imbricated encounters, intimacy –displaced and contingent— emerges in unlikely places. Knes’ work is fascinating in this regard, because in some ways it has mirrored this development. Rather than featuring appropriated images it is Knes’ own archive that has been horizontalized decoupled from the deep contexts in which many photographs emerged. But in some ways it is this decoupling that has become the context. The photographs in intimation allover –forbidden cities, solitary slugs, tortured trees and hands within hands, eerie landscapes and troubled interiors, feet in repose and feet treading their tortured path to Ascension— act as portals to broader themes of place and belonging, of religion and sexuality, of love maybe and personal relations.

Wearing the Garments of the World Lightly

Some months before I wrote this text I opened my Inbox to find a message from Heinz. Attached was an untitled JPEG, a photo of Marco D’Agrate’s sculpture St. Bartholomew Flayed, 1562 which resides in the Duomo in Milan. One of the twelve disciples, St. Bartholomew is said to have travelled to Syria or Armenia and converted some people before being flayed alive and probably beheaded. In this sculpture he stands almost naked with a robe across his pelvis and draped across his arm. He is all sinew and bone and muscle. It turns out the robe is his skin, he wears it for some limited modesty, but he is laid bare. In some of the myths around St. Bartholomew the story goes that rather than being skinned alive by non-believers, he took out a scissors and did the job himself. He embraced his martyred position like all true photographer saints. In the Duomo St. Bartholomew wears his skin like a robe, fashionably thrown over his shoulder, his body a triumph of the male anatomy. Is this then the latest Knes self-portrait? An artistic through-line from the nonchalant kid in 1989 to the scarred young man, to the stripped Butt magazine, to the casually crossed legs, to this sanctified creature who has sought pain, endured it, and come out the other side a new truth teller? A philosopher king, wearing the garments of the world lightly? While not featured in the exhibition, for me this photograph becomes analogous to its strengths: a confidence in not depending on preexisting orientations, an ability to wear its influences lightly, and a desire to lay the photographer bare. An ongoing experiment in identity projection –on the part of the viewer who seeks to divine the photographs, and on the part of the artist who seeks to facilitate and frustrate such a divination.

The exhibition becomes a lucid and generous gesture of self as well as a complex composite of a constructed entity. Decoupled and decontextualized the photographs have a freedom, yet they are resolutely of the gallery and art objects. In their physicality and presentation they form a resistant strain to the relentless immediacy and superfluous quality of the image in a post-digital world. They offer up a kind of promise, the idea that an authorial vision is still possible, one that carries in its DNA its history of concessions and capitulations, and that wears on its skin the mnemonic scars of living.

Bartholomew Ryan, 2015