Clive Knights: Fragmentary Intimations of Shared Meaning

Clive Knights in his studio, Portland, Oregon, 2021, photo courtesy of the artist

Clive Knights practices architecture and art, in particular mixed media and monotype printmaking. He holds professional architectural design undergraduate and graduate degrees from Portsmouth Polytechnic, UK, and a Master of Philosophy in Architectural History and Theory from Cambridge University. Clive has taught architecture since 1984 and was a full-time lecturer at Sheffield University for six years before moving to Portland State University in 1995 where he currently resides as a professor and director of the PSU School of Architecture. His primary areas of interest include the cultural meanings of architectural representation understood through the phenomenology of the human body, with particular reference to the writings of Maurice Merleau-Ponty; the revelatory capacity of metaphor in poetic work; and speculations in architectural design studio pedagogy. Publications include many journal articles and book chapters on the theory, history and pedagogy of architecture. 

You have a strong educational and professional background in architecture. Tell me a bit about yourself and what brought you to art.

I was born and raised in England where I studied architecture at the advice of my high school art teacher who noticed a predilection for spatial settings in my drawings. I’ve drawn all my life, winning my first prize at age eight for a drawing of the old stone parish church in our village. After a professional architectural education at Portsmouth Polytechnic, two class mates and I set up a fledgling practice and rather audaciously suggested to our alma mater that we could teach drawing to freshmen much better than it was taught to us. Much to our surprise we got hired to do just that. As a practice we lasted 3 years, entering many architectural design competitions with meticulous line drawings in ink. In 1985 we had three projects exhibited at the Venice Biennale’s Third International Exhibition of Architecture, and a year later won an international competition for house design published in Architectural Design Magazine. We thought the world would open up to us, leading to global success, which, of course, it didn’t.

As a graduate student I had studied the Russian avantgarde art movements of the early 20th century where traditional disciplinary distinctions between poetry, painting, sculpture, theatre and architecture were fluid. I was tutored by the incredible Spanish philosopher and art historian Tomas Llorens with whom I discovered philosophy, in particular the problematic legacy of Kantian aesthetics in modern art. As a result, I developed a deep passion for investigating what human creativity is all about, mainly so I’d learn how to do it better myself and be able to teach others. At age 27 I returned to school to study with the architectural phenomenologist Dalibor Vesely at Cambridge University. Here I discovered Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy of the body, and the philosophy of interpretation (hermeneutics) espoused by Gadamer and Ricoeur. My thesis examined Aristotle’s notion of ‘poiesis’ (poetic making) and through this research I discovered how metaphor is the primary motivating force of creative activity, and, in fact, the guarantee of human community in how it reveals similarity in things that, on their face, differ. All forms of language are metaphoric both in origin and at their vital contemporary edge, at their creative horizon where new ideas emerge to challenge and enrich the familiar. I am fascinated how this understanding of creativity plays out through the contributions of all the poetic arts to the settings of our lives.

After Cambridge I got my first full-time teaching position in architecture at Sheffield University in the UK, and then my second position here at Portland State University, Portland, Oregon, where I later become the founding director of our new School of Architecture.

Your collaborative projects, like corpus animus, Pickathon and Riverhouse seem to fuse public art, architecture, and education. You say that in your collaborative project with the Pickathon Music Festival, you aimed to contribute to the festival philosophy of creating high experiential impact with low environmental impact. Can you describe the process and collaborative nature of this project and how do you see the relationship between architecture and art in this context?

Each Summer from 2014-2019 I partnered with faculty colleague Travis Bell to run a studio called ‘Diversion Design/Build’ that created, built, and deconstructed unique Treeline Stage structures at the annual Pickathon Music Festival in Happy Valley, Oregon. The philosophy of the studio is ‘use but not use-up’, such that each year we collaborated with a small group of graduate architecture students who searched for existing mass-produced products from industrial settings, often not typically used for building, with which to propose innovative designs. Over the years we have utilized wooden shipping pallets, cardboard tubes used for shipping sheet steel & cable, uncut 16ft timber studs, and most recently, local fruit harvesting bins. Together, we collectively imagined new festival structures each year and worked through the logistics of material acquisition, fabrication strategies that avoid damage to the materials and to the farmland upon which they are built, while figuring out a program of construction for the 3-week window before each festival. Students physically built the structures on site (each equivalent in scale to a 3-4 story building), enjoyed the 4-day music festival, and then for one week afterwards carefully dismantled the structures and returned the ‘borrowed’ industrial products to their sources to be re-incorporated in their respective work flows.

With these structures we aimed to touch the earth lightly but profoundly. We’ve spent six years getting to know the landscape of Pendarvis Farm and its horizons with the familiarity that one forges with an old friend. To honor that friendship each design framed new disclosures, acting as an intermediary between the fleeting festival audience and performing bands, and the persistence of the landscape setting. We wished to draw attention to the cyclic orders of nature as the enduring backdrop to the ephemeral experiences of human joy and suffering, love and loss, embodied, fleetingly, in the performance of music, as well as in the emotional transformation of its witnesses.

Treeline Stage at the Pickathon Music Festival, with Travis Bell and the Diversion Design/Build Studio, School of Architecture, Portland State University, 2019, fruit harvesting bins and wood studs, 42’H x 120’L x 60’W, photo courtesy of the artist

In your two-dimensional work – both prints and collages – you seem to use a collage thought process, of working with fragments. You mentioned in our conversation the notion of “collage in public domain,” and “collage of scale”, describing your recent project of enlarging and displaying your two-dimensional work outdoors. Can you elaborate on that?

I am drawn to the analogy of a conversation when thinking about art making, regardless of medium and scale. No conversation between two or more parties starts by knowing the outcome, by having a preconceived sense of final, singular form, and it is emergent meaning that holds the attention of all parties, together. To enter a conversation is to tacitly believe in the possibility of accomplishing common understanding through an openness that refuses to preempt how this might present itself. Each contributor’s input is thus an extemporized fragment set against other fragments, together on a collaborative journey towards potential meaning.

If my interlocutors are other humans, or fragments of cut and torn paper, or building materials, or natural phenomena, the task is much the same. Engage openly, converse responsively, discover identity in difference, without eradicating difference in the process.

I am convinced that our collective lives together would be enriched if the conversations instigated by artful making took place in public space and not ensconced in specialist institutions shielded from day-to-day involvement in human life. So, although I love visiting galleries and museums, I can’t help feeling I’m meeting prisoners during visiting hours. I just published a short work of fiction in Kolaj Magazine #30 on this issue of the institutional incarceration of the arts, titled ‘The City of Objectivity.’ Architecture, of course, is always in the public domain and thus, potentially at least, has the upper hand over the other arts in initiating conversations with its public as it enriches and transforms their lives. More recently architecture, unfortunately, has for the most part, forgotten how to engage this potential; hence, relearning it has become the focus of teaching in our school.

The recent inauguration of Fencework: An Outward Facing Neighborhood Gallery for Collage, on my property in a Portland residential neighborhood, is a small gesture within the larger aim to get art works, these fragmentary intimations of shared meaning, out into the spaces of everyday life.

Clive Knights, Lunigiana Stele, 2010, monotype, 8″x 8″, photo courtesy of the artist

I am looking at your earlier collage series (2013) made by hand from layered paper and acetate, 4.5” x 6.5.” You say that you are reflecting on Aristotle’s definition for making  good metaphors as “having an eye for the similarity in dissimilars.” Can we take a look at Lunar Rhythm in that context and what is your idea behind the figure?

Despite the objective of industrialized cultures to control the orders of nature for expedient utility and profit, human beings live out life within a context that they did not create. Humans are mortal and finite in time, the cosmos is eternal and cyclic. The passage of the sun and the moon across the vault of the sky are perennial themes in all human cultures throughout history by virtue of their continuity and predictability. They set up a temporal and spatial agenda against which we calibrate the detail of our lives.

The collage Lunar Rhythm, as it turned out, ponders both the implicit and explicit influences of the moon. Its theme will have emerged during the process of making it, not planned out beforehand, implicitly intentional perhaps. The contributing image fragments each act as conduits onto potent worlds that they hold at bay, like a valve, poised, ready to be activated by the interpretive engagement of the viewer, letting that world flood into the picture as constituted by their imagination. Then, once released, these worlds merge as similarities resonate across the piece — the undulations of topography in the contour map and the golden fabric; the sharp points of the barbed-wire and the pointedness of the new moon; moonlight’s relationship with romance and the rose, a barbed plant (Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream); the association of the moon with the eastern sky; the translation of the celestial orders into the gift of primordial music; the perpetual human enterprise to construct mechanisms equivalent to naturally occurring phenomena; and continually advancing technological observation devices that purport to reveal more of the world they survey when in fact their narrowing vision becomes a form of blindness to all things that cannot be verified by sight.

Clive Knights, Lunar Rhythm, 2013, cut paper collage, 6.5”x 4.5”, photo courtesy of the artist

Looking at your latest collage work, for example, A little S&M, I get a sense of a more abstracted space with a freer touch. What is your take on that and how do you think your collage work has evolved till today?

I often get comments on my recent collage work that references their ‘abstract’ character and I think this is because identifiable images of things often become less prominent in the work than qualities like variegation of texture, layering, color, tone, depth, contrast, gesture. I actually consider these qualities to be ‘concrete,’ even visceral, and view a recognizable image of a figure, an animal or a plant, and so on, more abstract because their denotative dimension can short-circuit a more direct engagement with the actuality of the ripped and cut paper. But it is very much a balance that I hope for, because I do want the semantic thresholds afforded by recognizable images to be present, but just not to dominate the experience of the collage. The distinction could be likened to that between poetry and prose writing, where poems struggle to be concrete, to return the literal, abstract, meanings of words to a more primordial place where new meaning is born, by the metaphoric turn. I guess I am striving to inhabit the birth place of new images while acknowledging their descent from already existing images. Though he is referring to literary poetry, I often quote a line by Octavio Paz that I think pertains well to collage where he describes a poem as “a magnetic object, a secret meeting place of many opposing forces.” I make collages with the hope of revealing something of that secret, like a divination of that which remains hidden despite all that you put in front of yourself, as the maker of collage, and in front of others as they experience the collage.

The more recent addition of gestural graphite mark making over the collages (though sometimes made before I start to collage and other times during) is, I think, an attempt to imprint more explicitly the concrete presence of the human body into the making of the work. These marks are often created by a movement close in manner to a reflex, the outcome of a spasm, as opposed to a planned or controlled delineation.

Clive Knights, A little S&M, 2021, cut paper collage and graphite, 8”x 8”, photo courtesy of the artist

Tell me about your printmaking. Let’s look at your series Earth for example. How did you start this body of work and what was your process?

This series was inspired by witnessing a room at the de Young Museum in San Francisco some years ago filled with the result of a short printmaking collaboration between Nathan Oliveira and Richard Diebenkorn at Stanford in 1975. Some of these monotypes had sectional qualities as if cutting architectural sections through the surface of the earth, going deep into its bowels. This evidently excited my architectural sensibility and I came home from that trip enthralled and set about familiarizing myself with Oliveira’s many series of monotypes, all of which are exquisite. So, in homage to Oliveira, I pressed myself into the ground to explore what subterranean qualities could be conjured through my own print making process. Though the Earth series went through a press, the majority of my monotype prints are hand-burnished without using a mechanical press so that the limit of the pressure that my body can exert contributes to the possible result of each print.

Clive Knights, Descent, 2011, monotype, 6”x 6”, photo courtesy of the artist

Your imagery in the print series Towers seems to differ from most of your other work in the sense that it focuses on a single structure in a vast empty landscape, stretching upwards within a bold horizontal plane. There is a strong sense of architecture in this series, which brings me back to my initial questions on the relationship between architecture and image-making in your work. Can you reflect on that in reference to this body of work?

I am convinced that human experience is ‘horizonal,’ that it is always, already on its way, unfolding, and thus never a fixed and static reality that one could presume to comprehend in its entirety. Painting and architecture since the Renaissance have been transformed by the prioritization of the visual horizon encapsulated in the geometry of perspective. Alberto Perez-Gomez’ research has convincingly revealed the deleterious effects of this narrowing of experience to the purely visual. The Towers series is one small contribution to a continued obsession with horizons, here the terrestrial horizon, and a desire to peer over its edge, to catch a glimpse of the invisible, to get a sense of that which is beyond reach. It’s a metaphor for the dilemma of humans, bound to their finitude, set free across an eternal landscape.

Clive Knights, Belvedere, 2012, monotype, 11”x 7”, photo courtesy of the artist

What are you working on in your studio these days?

Alongside the discipline of daily collage making in my graphic journal and teaching my architecture classes, I am keen to increase in the scale of my collage work. I recently made a series of larger collages on pages from old, large format books, that explore the ontology of the home stretched out vertically between earth and sky. I have batches of 24”, 30” and 36” square canvasses lined up in my studio, ready to go, but have not yet found the courage to embark on a journey across this expanded terrain. The trepidation is confounding since I’ve worked for so long at the scale of the landscape with the Pickathon festival structures. It will happen, the horizons beckon, and they’ll soon be irresistible.

Etty Yaniv works on her art, art writing and curatorial projects in Brooklyn. She founded Art Spiel as a platform for highlighting the work of contemporary artists, including art reviews, studio visits, interviews with artists, curators, and gallerists. For more details contact by Email: