Toronto painter Kris Knight describes himself more as a storyteller than a portraitist because, he says, his subjects are rarely recruited from the corporeal world. His portraits are, rather, syntheses of fantasy and real-world memory.
The faces he creates don’t seem innocent, but they are youthful and androgynous, with delicate features. Colours are cool. Skin is usually pale as if moonlit, but cheeks are flushed, lips engorged and glistening. The characters seem as beautiful familiar strangers, skillfully captured in fleeting moments of furtive eye contact. There’s an expressionless sense of mutual desire. It’s very compelling.
Take BJ in Blue Forest: Knight says the piece is inspired by a real person.
“Everyone just calls him Beej,” says Knight. “After I thought about it, BJ in Blue Forest is pretty sexual, but that wasn’t really what I was setting out to make.”
“It’s typical of my work,” he smiles. “It’s kind of a mythical portrait. I mostly paint rural people who go off into the forest to find escape. It comes from growing up gay in the country. You’d find people and meet up in different places that are like safe havens. In reality, you’re meeting up in forests at night, which is kind of scary to anyone who’s not rural.”
Knight is a beautiful man. He seems absolutely confident when it comes to his work and career; still, he describes himself aptly as shy, quiet, something of a solitary figure. He’s a bit uncomfortable talking about himself, preferring to let his work speak for itself. His career would likely allow him to live in Paris, New York or LA, but he prefers Toronto, he says, because it’s “easy to hide away here.”
He’s completely personable and unpretentious. It’s attractive.
“I think for me, being honest with myself and showing that in my work, people trust that more,” he says. “Art is about self-expression; the more truthful you are, the more is revealed. You believe in that work more.”
Xtra last profiled Knight in 2007. Since then, his career has blossomed. New pieces sold for hundreds of dollars each then. They command thousands now. He’s working steadily, showing internationally and selling out shows. This summer he scored a coup, showing at the prestigious Mike Weiss Gallery in New York. And he’s getting fan mail, some from gay kids in rural communities for whom his work is especially resonant.
He attributes his success to simple dedication.
“I’ve done really well,” he says. “I work really hard. I don’t have much of a social life because I work on deadlines, but I book shows. I work in the studio until early in the morning. I just see it as, if you want to make it, you have to do the work.”
Knight says he started learning the business side of art at 18, when he found his first gallery job. He began working in commercial galleries in Toronto shortly after he enrolled in the Ontario College of Art and Design. While in school — he graduated in 2003 — he says he deliberately surrounded himself with people who seemed likely to go places. He says about half of the work of making a living in the art world is self-promotion.
Knight donates a few pieces each year to gay and lesbian causes. So far this year he’s donated to the Lesbian, Gay, Bi, Trans Youth Line Line Art Auction and the Art with Heart auction to benefit Casey House. And BJ in Blue Forest can be yours if the price is right. Knight has donated the piece to Art Attack: An Auction in Support of Buddies in Bad Times Theatre.