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LONDON — It seems bereavement can lead to a certain minimalism. “If you take everything away and then what are you left with?” asks Hannah Knox. The young artist lost her mother five years ago, but parental influence is everywhere in her current show at Ceri Hand. Knox’s mother was a fashion designer. Her daughter’s work engages with fabrics and shows an interest in clothing trends.
At her East London studio, in Dalston, she shows me a magazine cover in which bandage dresses are printed with gladiator-style belts. “There’s something in fashion,” she observes. “I quite like the ludicrous side of it.” And so despite the loss which haunts her exhibition, her paintings are light in touch and imbued with the passion of a catwalk show.
“That for me feels no different from the passion that might go into making a piece of art,” says Knox. “There’s certain fashion designers that I’m incredibly impressed with, by the way they’ve cut a certain piece of cloth, or draped something.” So if her work troubles the viewer, it is here along the fault-line which separates fine art from haute couture.
“As you go round lots of these similar galleries or even when you go round Frieze you’ll notice real themes running between the galleries and you get real flavors,” she continues. “Like, one year everyone will be working on dust sheets!” An idea that Knox gives voice to is fashion as the elephant-in-the-gallery, taboo and hard to talk about. She calls one piece “Fall ’13.”
Knox is also on familiar terms with all of Dalston’s many fabric sellers. “There’s Wrigley Road market which is just down the road with lots of fabric stalls down there and there’s also a really big fabric shop at the end which is like a complete rabbit warren,” she says. “So I think I’ve been redirecting all my wages into there.”
Knox tends to eschew canvas, using different materials to give work different statuses: “Some of the fabrics will be PVC, which is quite trashy, and then others are really expensive cashmeres or wools.” At Ceri Hand gallery visitors will also come across cotton, wool and the colour-shifting thermochromic material once used to make Global Hypercolor t-shirts.
When challenged about her persistent use of the word painting for what might variously be considered textile works or even sculptures, Knox sticks to her guns: “They’re all on a stretcher and I think for that reason they are paintings. I am embracing the history of painting … I do see myself as a painter first and foremost.”
Spray paint is liked for the way that it soaks into most fabrics, and gives a powdery finish. It also shortcuts the need for a primer. “This is a cashmere wool mix,” the artist tells me, pointing at a kaleidoscopic work against the studio wall. Primer would, she goes on, affect the surface of the ground. “What I love is when the paint sits into that … it goes from being a very silky looking texture to … that claggy, animal fur thing going on,” she says.
But spray paint is not without its own challenges. One of the most popular pieces at Ceri Hand has proved to be a terroristic piece of Op Art, namely a triptych called Third Wave Riot. “That piece was just so hideous to make, because it really messes with your eyes, and then spray painting in here!? I’ve got the window, but it doesn’t particularly help much and then the room bascially becomes this thick fog of blue spray paint.”
Third Wave Riot, as astute readers might guess, refers to both Third Wave Feminism and the riot grrrl movement which hit the music scene in the mid 90s. “We were wanting to change the perception of how girls were seen and how girls viewed their bodies,” the artist recalls. With a mix of fondness and embarrassed laughter, she also recounts her first forays into spray can art, writing graffiti for her teenage band, Poonani Posse.
Knox grew up in London, and met her riot grrrl pals at Richmond College. Two of them, Layla Gibbon and Esme Young, formed band Skinned Teen, who were championed by legendary Radio One DJ John Peel. Graham from Blur is also said to have been a fan. “I don’t think I was even particularly aware that they were part of a scene,” says Knox with some of the retrospective innocence of youth.
The artist fills me in on her subsequent drift towards art. She took a BA at Middlesex University before spending six years in a range of odd jobs, including a prop maker on the film Titanic, a muralist, and a signwriter: “Painting numbers on really posh people’s doors”, as she recalls it. Between 2005 and 2007 she completed an MA at the Royal College of Art. “The thing that was really consistent is that I was always painting,” she says.
Gallery representation followed a solo show called Stoffbilder at the Take Courage gallery. In a leap of faith, gallerist Ceri Hand, whose mission is to support emerging artists, signed Knox on the strength of this show and, some 10 months later, the artist is enjoying solo representation in a central location during Art Fair Week. “It’s been a whirlwind really,” she admits, along with a “massive learning experience.”
“There’s always that theory that [by pursuing art] you are kind of following your heart or being true to yourself,” says Knox of her vocation. “But actually when you really get involved in the whole business of it, it’s not really just that at all. It’s a whole other world of stuff, and problems open up, and questions as well.”
But let us hope, Knox doesn’t follow her heart too much. As the interview draws to a close, she contemplates being asked to join another band, “It’s still something that I have within me and if somebody said, Do you want to do it? I would,” she laughs. “Even though i’ve completely failed at learning the guitar.”
But music’s loss is painting’s gain. Look out for this artist’s next collection in a season soon to come.
Hannah Knox’s BUFF is on view at Ceri Hand Gallery (6 Copperfield Street, London) through October 26.