Debbie Harry (New Wave Version II), 2014
Fluorescent tape on Polaroid
12 cm x 11 cm
© Robert Knoke
ROBERT KNOKE: POLAROIDS Interview by Joakim Andreasson
Robert Knoke is one of the most compelling contemporary artists redefining the genre of portraiture for the 21st century. Knoke has over the past twenty three years developed THE PORTRAIT SERIES - a significant body of work with a unique and vigorous signature style that includes personally selected subjects such as Iris Apfel, Bret Easton Ellis, Patti Smith, Gilbert & George, Debbie Harry, and Casey Spooner, among countless others. Refraining from the classical confinements of portraiture, Knoke recently started photographing his works, adding a layer of observation and treatment. The series of unique pieces are available Worldwide for the first time on Frozen Palms.
What impact do traditional definitions of portraiture have on your work?
Not much. I never really thought about it because I never studied portraiture. My father, who also was an artist, made portraits from time to time. He probably had the most influence on me as a child as I grew up in his studio. To be honest, I find most portraits these days pretty dreadful. Rather than portraits, I like to think of my work as abstract forms that just looks like a faces. When I think about the idea of doing a real portrait of someone, I end up with clichés and that bring us to kitsch. I find portraiture a very difficult theme in our times, because it's not really necessary as in previous centuries when photography wasn’t invented. When and how did you start developing The Portrait Series? And who was your subject?
I started with my first ones in 1991. Leon Golub, Nancy Spiro and Andrée Putman where my first subjects. By what means do you translate the subject onto the blank sheet of paper?
I use ink-based markers, grease pencils, ball point pens, sometimes glossy paints and other things that I can draw with. I just start at some part of the figure and go until it’s finished.
People are always fascinated by the subjects in your works. How do you select people and how does the personal interaction you experience with each, shape the final outcome?
Well, as I said before, I like to think that what I do is not really portraiture. That aspect of my practice has been more about a pre-existing idea and notion of what people have in mind in terms of what portraiture has to serve. It’s most perfect, when I can forget about the person, who he or she is and what they represent, and only concentrate on the shape and architecture of the figure. For me, that is the best artistic process. Working for all these years with the same medium and theme has a huge role in itself for the concept of the series. The constant repetition is actually one of my main subjects.
So I would assume that you feel more creative leeway when you don't personally know the person, of meet them for the first time?
That’s true. Of course I know the person from their work or so, but I don’t want it to get too personal. I don’t find it helpful when I know my subjects for a long time. I need to meet them in person and briefly take my photos, so I can capture aspects that I want to draw. I don’t mind to have a little chat, but then I leave and create the works on my own. I like to maintain a sense of innocence before I start each drawing. However, over the years I have inevitably become quite close with people I have met along the way.
To what extent do the subjects reflect your interests and personal expression?
I only draw people I like. Be it their look or what they do. Some express that more, some less. But this is not fan art. I’m not obsessed with my subjects. I’m obsessed with drawing.
Can u tell me a bit about the process in re-appropriation of your art into polaroids?
I was actually thinking of how to make an edition of some of my portraits. I thought about turning my drawings into lithographs or silk screens but found the Polaroid right now very interesting because every photograph is a unique piece. I also like that the format is so tiny. All my portraits are life size and I don’t want to draw them any smaller, but with the Polaroid’s, the small size works very well.
The combination of subject matter and usage Polaroids becomes quite Warholian and representative of a certain era of pop culture. How do polaroids conceptually fit into your artistic practice?
Well, I do what I like and what I think works best for what I want to achieve. I know that the combination reminds one of Warhol, especially when you see a Debbie Harry portrait. But my work is still very different. The vintage feel is not really what I desire, but I like that it is not digital and that the outcome of a Polaroid is always a surprise somehow, similar to my drawings: You never know how they turn out. That the photo itself is a little bit of an object is also something I find very appealing. It is also graphically very beautiful that there is already a frame around the photo.
The compositions of the photographs are quite classical, whereas the multi-media application onto the surfaces, appear very intuitive. It's a very dynamic juxtaposition - Is it in response to a desire to add human quality to a reproduction?
Maybe. I always found it interesting to take photographs of my work. Especially the details and close-ups of the faces. I work from photos that I first take of my subjects and then I do the drawing. Now I take the camera again to take photos of the drawings. On top of it, I draw over the photograph again or add glitter or paint, which I also use in some of my drawings. So it’s a constant interweaving of two mediums: drawing and photography.
The layered process you describe is interesting - and on top of it, there is the aspect of you being voyeur in dissecting your own work. What's that like?
Yes, it’s quite interesting because it feels, as if my subjects are sitting for me again. My photos only show select parts of each drawing, for example only the face, an eye or another abstract element. If the composition commands it, I combine two or more Polaroids.
What determines the choice of the applied surface treatment?
It is very intuitive. I often used glitter on my drawings and with Debbie Harry for instance, I thought about punk and disco, so glitter and even pink fluorescent tape made sense for her face. But I also like it, when it doesn’t make sense at all. So I don’t know, really. I just look at the polaroid and observe if it needs anything or if I leave it like it is. It’s very simple.
Robert Knoke's Polaroid Editions are available HERE