While the work of Michael Knutson has remained largely unknown to the public, a sprawling mid-career retrospective of the artist's work just might change that. In a joint exhibition at Marylhurst's Art Gym and Lewis & Clark's Hoffman Gallery, this survey spans 25 years and includes everything from his enormous, vibrantly colored paintings to smaller watercolor works, studies, and sketches. Getting so much of Knutson's work in one shot is deeply rewarding—especially for observing how his art has evolved, while preserving its own visual vocabulary.
At the core of these works are repeated geometric forms. On his canvases, planes of interlocking diamonds undulate and star shapes explode in kaleidoscopic spirals. These forms create a palpable tension between chaos and order. The hard-edged shapes fit together like a mosaic, but the arrangements fan out in warped and unpredictable configurations. According to Knutson, "Every inch of the surface is mapped, every shape is set in the pattern like a brick in a wall." But his "bricks" are seldom consistently shaped or sized. Instead, his surfaces range from muddied concentrations of tiny pieces to larger, more clearly defined shapes. As such, they resemble the shards of a broken pane of glass or a tangled web of lines. It makes for an over-stimulating view: As shapes spread across canvases, laterally, there is no central point for the viewer to focus his gaze. This strategy of frustrating the viewer's gaze is carried out even further in his work from the early '90s, in which Knutson incorporates jagged pieces of mirror into his canvases. In works like "Bramble," reflections of the opposite gallery wall and the viewer himself interrupt the viewing experience.
As an MFA student at Yale, Knutson studied color theory with Josef Albers. Throughout the exhibitions, his nuanced palettes add another dimension to these formally dense works. Whether working in limited colors or less restricted palettes, his use of coloration often charges his paintings with an illusive sense of motion that conjures Op Art of the '60s. Knutson's work, though, is far deeper than Op Art, even if his canvases rely on the same building blocks—geometric shapes and color—for their dizzy, gorgeous effect.