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Devon McKnight: Painter

Devon McKnight hails from North Carolina.  She came to the Graduate program at San Jose State two years ago and recently just passed her Advancement to Candidacy (ATC.)  McKnight is a paper artist now exploring the relationship between paper, flat surfaces and objects as well as 3D objects.  The conversations that ensue between these objects and the placement they exist upon fascinates McKnight and the repositioning creates more dialogue that turns her world upside down, literally.  

Devon McKnight next to a piece in her Advancement to Candidacy work at San Jose State University.  Photo © Aimee Santos

1.  You went from exploring the way paint interacts with paper to the way objects interact with their environment.  Can you describe the catalyst that brought you closer to objects and away from paper?

I'm sure it was a natural progression as most of my steps are. I've always been drawn to the application of paint on a surface. It's just so damn sensual and luxurious. I moved from the canvas to paper because of my economic circumstances (paper was just cheaper and readily available and manageable) and as I worked with paper more and more, collaging, stacking, I realized I enjoyed it's physicality but also flatness. I remember wishing the paper would come off the wall, I wanted to build with it, so I began folding it and trying to make it as 3-D as possible. 

Around this time I was gifted various materials such as wood and styrofoam. They already took on the forms I worked with, rectangles, squares, and I enjoyed the ease of working with them. With paper I had difficulty hanging everything and keeping it all clean and getting glue everywhere. These new physical forms seemed to give me a lot of freedom. Like a kid with blocks. 

I still use paper and find it even more interesting as it, with it's flatness, interacts with the more sculptural surfaces. 

A collaborative piece created with Scotty Gorham which incorporated a found dresser on the streets of San Jose, CA and the incorporation of paint on a 3D surface.  Photo © Aimee Santos

Devon McKnight Photo © Aimee Santos

2.  Shapes and color seem integral to your thought process but is there an underlying theory to the examination of what you are doing? 

Of course!!  I love using really basic forms and ideas because it keeps things simple and clear. I think sometimes we need that. Also, I think the simplicity of form allows me to explore form and paint and material and space and a slew of other things in so many different ways. From canvas to paper to wood to styrofoam. From wall to floor to both 

Also when I think of life in it's most simple form, I see shapes and color. They literally make up everything. The sky...rectangle, blue...a, Naples yellow...a forest...rectangle, green. I can see myself exploring those two for the rest of my life and still not really grasping them.  Also, they help define really basic relationships that I can then manipulate and play with 

Scotty Gorham and Devon McKnight discussing the next step of a collaborative piece.  Photo © Aimee Santos

3.  Your installations are constantly changing through your own hand but what would happen if you included the participant in the creation of your visual environment wether it be through moving or adding objects?  And is it possible for the participant to be considered part of the installation by simply being present?

I think first I would have to ask myself why? What would be the reason for viewers to alter my work? To help them feel included? To give them power? To add their mind to mine and see what happens? 

Although my work seems loose and temporary and easily changed and perhaps easily made, it is so for a reason. It is me. It is a thought process, a question, an answer, a feeling, a way of being. Now, to let people come in to a space and rearrange my work on a whim, I think it would erase all meaning. The forms would literally just become blocks that people are pushing around because they look pretty or interesting.  I think that process or idea is different from what I am doing. 

For the second part of the question, "is the viewer part of the installation", that is a tough one. I think it is more like I hope for the viewer to enter in to a dialogue with the space, myself, themselves, and the work. I think viewers always become part of the work if they choose to engage. You could ask, is a viewer part of any work they encounter. I would hope so. I think that is kind of the idea of art. 

A work on paper by Devon McKnight.  Photo © Aimee Santos

4.  You have collaborated with other pictorial and spatial artists but have you considered a collaboration that involved a theorist, poet, or graffiti artist?  Possibly one that would take you outside the walls of the academic institution and into the streets of the city you inhabit?

Before coming to San Jose I was part of a group that focused on community engagement. Through that practice I realized how much I wanted to focus on my individual practice and get back in to painting...inside the walls. There's a truth that an artist discovers inside the studio walls that I think is important to explore on your own, at least for myself.  I'm always open to collaborations of all kinds and often consider the various conversations I have with others, the music I listen to, the books I read and the experiences I have to be collaborations.  

A work on paper by Devon McKnight.  Photo © Aimee Santos

5.  Have you considered taking it one step further by adding your hand into the creation of a piece as much as possible by creating something out of metal or wood?  Thus being able to create the shapes beforehand and then manipulating the environment around that shape?

I'm not sure that I see my process in this way. It is never so thought out. Granted, I think about it constantly and imagine scenes like you have described but the work falls flat if planned.  Its life is sustained in spontaneity and really, movement. Ideas and next steps are born within the rearranging and constant replacing of the work.  To plan ahead and set a scene becomes a bit false and often stale in my work. 

I see my hand in every part of my process. From choosing the material to applying paint to the material to the specific placement of that material against a specific wall. Just because I didn't handcraft every surface does not mean there is less of me in it. I adopt this refuse for it's history and beauty and my mind forms a relationship with it's existence and it begins a new life in my work. 

I do like that idea of creating an environment around a shape. Kind of like thinking backwards. 

A collaborative piece with artist Gabriel Serpa.  Photo © Aimee Santos

6.  Do you think it is possible that you are alienating a segment of your audience because your work is so layered with visual composition and theoretical analysis? 

Life is made up of visual content and theory...isn't it?  I don't ask or assume that everyone will see everything that I see in my work. And I don't expect everyone to see the same thing or really much at all. 

I use basic shapes and colors. We can all identify or feel something from those elements because they exist in our everyday. There will always be those that don't connect with me or the work I make and that's just life. You can't force your ideas or direct your ideas to include everyone.  

Feeling isolated or estranged from a work is a pretty strong feeling.  I think it is just as important as finding beauty.  There is a lot of isolation and absence and distance and emptiness in my work so it would not be surprising is someone felt negatively. 

Work on paper by Devon McKnight.  Photo © Aimee Santos

7.  And is it possible that instead of creating a large room environment with multiple compositions that you focus on one grouping of objects for a period of time to evaluate the relations it is having within itself and the environment around it?

That's pretty much what my studio practice consists of.