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Just a Dreamer Describing His World

Painter Tom Knechtel's hodgepodge images draw on disparate art styles to tell little erotic and whimsical tales.


Tom Knechtel has the vague air of a European professor with his tossed-about hair, rumpled clothes and generous girth. His sentences lilt upwards, making him sound as though he is perpetually speaking in interrogatory mode. He is articulate, cheery, and not at all the sort that one might think of as, well, preoccupied with sex.

The artist, 49, gives out a Rabelaisian guffaw when the topic is broached. Among the myriad fantastical images that populate his paintings, things erotic or at least suggestive are constantly making cameo appearances. Knechtel says, "People feel surprised by the sex. I don't use it to get attention. It is part of my language of describing the world."

Knechtel employs the refined color and lapidary detail of Indian miniature painting, the flattened perspective of Asian and medieval art, and the draftsmanship of the Renaissance masters to concoct his own garden of earthly delights. The resulting paintings are stream-of-consciousness dreamscapes.

The combination of his technical gifts and his paintings' outrageous surreality has garnered popularity with curators, collectors and critics. Michael Darling wrote in the New Art Examiner, "In his jewel-like passages of brilliant animals, humans, and imagined characters, Knechtel assembles a hodgepodge of unsanctioned activities that seek to expose the ignored dark side present but obscured in us all."

Knechtel's recent works--most of them already spoken for by a waiting list of fans--go on view Wednesday at Grant Selwyn Gallery in Beverly Hills.

"On Wanting to Grow Horns," a mid-career survey of his work, from 1979 to 2001, is on view April 21 to July 14 at the Weatherspoon Art Gallery at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Organized by Anne Ayres, director of the Ben Maltz Gallery at Los Angeles' Otis College of Art and Design, it comes to that institution in the fall.

"He is inevitably seen as an idiosyncratic voice within the West Coast Surrealist tradition," she says, "but more fruitfully, he could be viewed as a sophisticated and quintessential artist of Postmodern abundance. I see his paintings as open-ended dramas of desire, melancholy, skepticism and, not the least, laughter."

One of the drawings meant for the Grant Selwyn show hangs on a studio wall at his modest Atwater home: a self-portrait of the artist, tummy protruding, sprawled on an armchair wearing large glasses and staring, world weary, at thought bubbles floating away. He's nude, and a certain private body part has been rendered as a sapling putting forth leaves.

But most of his works are much more mysterious. A large, magenta painting, "A Mare's Nest," portrays a beefy, middle-aged man who is naked but for the stays of a formal skirt. Knechtel says, "Rather than perfect fantasy bodies, I became more interested in my body and the bodies of men I knew. He has the quality of an Everyman."

In contrast to the nakedness of the subject's body, the head is wreathed in tiny images painted with the most painstaking care: the side streets of Los Angeles, fairy-tale characters, wasps and birds with fruit, goats wearing jewels, and many male wrestlers.

Above the man's head hovers a world that is even more condensed and crowded with random scenes, including an urn splashing what Knechtel explains is green perfume into the man's teacup. A singing man pulls his skirts apart suggestively; various booths sell ice cream. There is a temple with animated guardian dogs and a tailor shop at the side where a skirt is being sewn. A scruffy crow at the bottom of the painting appears to be telling the whole story in a maze of delicate lines.

Knechtel explains, "I wanted all that highly colored promiscuousness to be the world that holds onto the man and suggests experiences that he is not able to absorb. 'Mare's-nest' is an old-fashioned term for something that is purported to be wonderful but evaporates upon further examination."

Little visual stories proliferate all around the canvas, but there is no singular narrative thread. A viewer is left to muse and wonder, just as the painter had done.

"I don't know what a painting is about when I start," Knechtel says. "As I'm working, it changes as meaning accumulates."

It is time-consuming to take in Knechtel's painting, and a magnifying glass would not be amiss. They are time-consuming to produce, as well. "The Mare's Nest" took a year and a half to complete.

In a way, with all the Lilliputian figures and activities, the act of viewing feels somewhat akin to the process of reading. The artist, who has read Dante's "The Divine Comedy" in all of its various English translations, is passionate about literature. A few years ago, he painted his self-portrait as a middle-aged Scheherazade, spinning tales of personal fantasy.

"I'm interested in the work having the same quality as the way I think," he adds. "Contradictory, with many points of view at once, many stories and ideas banging up against each other. I don't think of my work as allegorical."

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