By Alec Clayton
Artist Becky Knold has released a trio of paintings that, intentionally or not, were inspired by or reacted to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. One was tentatively titled On Fire. The second was untitled. Only one has a title that refers to the current situation: Midnight in Kyiv — a Visceral Response. Yet they touched the hearts of many viewers, who saw them as an emotional response to the horror and profound sadness of the invasion.
Stylistically, the paintings fall somewhere between color field painting and abstract expressionism — canvases covered with large expanses of a few intense colors applied with ragged, excitable brush strokes and swipes of a palette knife.
In On Fire, globs of bright red paint practically cover the canvas, with little dabs of blue peeking through and hazy pink down the left side. It’s like paint peeling off the side of a building with earlier colors showing through, or like a building or city consumed by fire.
The untitled painting features the colors of the Ukrainian flag, with a ragged city skyline laid over swaths of yellow and green. Midnight in Kyiv is smoldering black and red, embers of a burnt-out city.
Speaking of Fire, Knold said, “This piece began when I discovered a treasure trove of old posters being resold at a thrift store a couple months ago. They were printed on heavy, professional stock paper. I wanted a piece of that paper but not the image printed on it. There was a can of flat black spray paint at hand, and I decided to use it. With one quick gesture, the image on the poster beneath was mostly covered. What remained were traces of the original print, mostly bits of red showing beneath the flat black spray paint. It seemed to hold the promise of an interesting under-painting with its texture and hints of color, but it needed a lot more red — more shades of red, more depth of red, more glossy layers of thick, red oil paint to contrast with the surface below. To use a brush would be too gentle a process. Using a palette knife loaded with thick, red paint mixed liberally with a glossy oil medium, I quickly slashed the surface with marks, staying mindful of their interaction with the surface below, leaving enough and adding enough to balance and contrast the surface textures. Still, I was thinking, ‘This is just the first step, an underpainting for something yet to be developed’; but with all the extra oil and gloss medium added into the paint, this stage of the painting would need several weeks to dry. So the unfinished painting was put aside, out of sight. I forgot all about it.”
Then the invasion happened. “Along with most of the world,” said Knoll, “I felt the horror of it. The devastation, destruction, violence, suffering and sadness enveloped us. The world now could only be viewed through this reality. The world seemed on fire. Everything had shifted. When I checked on the drying status of my underpainting, I suddenly saw it in a different way. It was enough. It was complete. It said all that I was feeling and couldn’t say. It’s a visceral response to the horror of war, an expression of rage and sadness and, indirectly, an appeal to end all wars.”
This is what art does. This is how it touches the human heart and mind. This is why we need art. Thank you, Becky Knold.