London/Tel Aviv, Sep. 2013: When are we ever going to be done with the onerous term that is 'street art'? Critics and writers are so fond of this repellent term yet the incompetence of this categorization, considering such a diverse range of practices, is startlingly evident, and ignores the way art is assimilated by public audiences.
Know Hope is a pertinent example of this unraveling of the 'street art' problem, having been tarnished with its indelible brush early on in his career: but it’s one of his aims. His delicate, laconic aesthetic doesn’t set out to redefine the genre, but it challenges nonetheless in the way it cohesively navigates different spaces.
The work feels like it belongs to another era of art that protests – it’s in that wistful, humanitarian vibe – more like a peer of Yoko Ono, or Chris Johanson and Barry McGee. Know Hope’s concepts are grandiose, universal and diffused subtly over time. It’s not about indulging on a fast and hard visual hit (another thing that separates him from contemporaries) but searching for a constant understanding, established slowly with time.
This year has been a pretty huge one for dispersing his message worldwide: pivotal solo shows at Known Gallery (LA) and Lazarides (London) arguably confirm that Know Hope has reached the upper echelons of the commercial gallery circuit. It seems he’s set to grow into major institutions in the future.
We sent him some questions to Tel Aviv where the artist is based.
Know Hope, The Overbearing Wall, 58.5x47cm.; Courtesy of the artist.
Charlotte Jansen: How was your time in London, and how did the British audiences react to your work on the street?
Know Hope: London was great. The street pieces I did while in town were part of a series 'Choosing Sides'. In these pieces, I paint lines on the ground and write a word on each side of the line. Examples of these texts are 'Our Side/Their Side', 'Our Story/Their Story', 'History/Folklore' and so on.
I chose to place them in high-traffic areas, places where I knew that a lot of people would be using the sidewalks. Naturally and inevitably, people would be crossing those lines constantly – sometimes consciously and sometimes without noticing.
Being that lines are drawn for people to stand behind, I find it interesting that sometimes sides are picked almost automatically, even when those sides have a very charged implication.
Some people noticed and some people didn't, but I think that in both cases it made for an unusual situation, and in my eyes both cases served as an interesting happening.
CJ: You exhibited at Known Gallery (LA) earlier this year too. I was there at an opening in May, and Sandra Bullock was there. Do you think the celebrity culture around 'street art' is detrimental?
KH: I don't think more than any other scene or anything for that matter. Life is happening around you at all times and art is meant to interact with and within life.
I also believe that there is still an implacable separation between the act of creating art and the commerce of it.
CJ: How did the responses differ at both shows, London and LA?
KH: To be honest, I don’t really know. The majority of personal response I get in regards to my exhibitions is usually at the opening, and the interactions at openings are a whirlwind, which makes it hard to recollect and reflect upon.
CJ: Which artists have influenced you most?
KH: Raymond Pettibon, Shel Silverstein, Chris Johanson, Swoon and all the other ‘unintentionals’ that surround me…
Know Hope, The Truth (The View From the Other Side), 48 x 58cm; Courtesy of the artist.
CJ: How did you develop this recurrent character that appears in your work?
KH: I started using a recurring character with intentions of developing a narrative, to tell a story that isn't necessarily a linear one, but conveys some sort of continuum. Since my work is based on that and a visual vocabulary that I've developed over the past few years, it is very heavily based on symbolism. Generally, work that is based on symbolism needs to be deciphered, as the meanings usually have the sharpest definitions in the artist's mind, but a lot gets lost in translation while transferring ideas into image, which is then communicated to the viewer. By maintaining a consistent use of this vocabulary, I allow the viewer to become familiarized with it and its tones, and eventually a common language is established between me and the viewer to converse in, one where both sides are comfortable.
The character is not necessarily human, but conveys enough human traits in order to create [a feeling of] identification with the viewer. Since the character is situated in different scenes and conditions, it creates parallels between real-life situations and the 'imaginary' ones that are depicted in my work.
In the long run, it allows the viewer to create and maintain a long-term relationship with the character, and pick up on the smaller nuances and those same tones I mentioned before.
The character is often seen going through a process of realization, of handling and understanding circumstances.
An important component in this imagery is the image of the heart.
The placement of the heart on the character is a testament of the level of experience that the character has.
The heart is typically seen as something precious – one is always told to guard his/her heart, take care of another's and so on. The heart is like a container of past times. The more experience the character has, the heavier the heart.
I see the heart as a burden, as a weight that we carry that isn't necessary. As we go on and progress in life, the heart becomes missing – it's given away, taken or lost, and an empty space is created.
An empty space has a negative connotation, but like I said, in my eyes, this is like a release of the burden. The empty space not only makes the load lighter, but it enables the character more than it disables. The character is often seen with a telescope going through the empty space, allowing it to 'see' places it couldn't have seen before with that same space 'occupied'. This is the benefit of hindsight – something that seems dramatic in the moment becomes positive in retrospect; we learn how to adapt to circumstances and we learn how to live with our empty spaces, our 'missings'.
So it basically gets broken down as so: the characters with their hearts in its [proper] place are the most inexperienced. They're often seen guarding their hearts, being stubborn.
Then there are the characters with the empty space, usually seen with hearts sewn or patched on their sleeve. This comes of course from the idiom 'to wear his heart on his sleeve', which means to be vulnerable, honest or exposed. These are traits that for me have always been associated with life experience, something we learn in our process of coming to terms with ourselves and others.
There are characters with amputated arms, also a product of circumstance. The amputated arms are seen with red dots on them, something that is seen on the tree stumps also in my work, in order to create another parallel between our surroundings – that we’re inseparable from the crumbling and also vulnerable surroundings and ourselves.
In addition to that, there are characters seen with their sleeves rolled up, revealing scars. Scars are memories, maps, another form of testimony of circumstance in another form. The characters are often seen 'recognizing' others with scars as well, and lining them up against each other's to show common memories.
All these things aren't things that necessarily need to be seen and understood, but it is possible to use these as one would a key of a map, to read the work in a more literal way. Of course, the way one perceives and interprets art will always be anything but objective, but I feel that if I create the work with these things in mind, it will hopefully transmit a certain energy.
CJ: The show at Lazarides is hung in a very particular way, can you talk over this? How did you start arranging works in this specific way?
KH: I've been approaching the installation process in this manner for the past few shows. I create a new body of work, while approaching each piece as a piece on its own, but also one that will later interact with others.
I see it as creating a ‘stock library’ of images that I create: photographs and ready-made materials that I later use to create assemblages and clusters incorporating all these things.
This creates connections that didn’t necessarily exist in the original context and allows a more intuitive narrative to be created in the space.
The photos create a dialogue with the other images in my work, allowing parallels between ‘real life’ and the ‘fantastical’ imagery created in my studio pieces.
CJ: You’ve never done any corporate or commercial work – I imagine you get a lot of offers – why is this?
KH: There are a few various reasons, all rooted in different approaches. First off, I like to be in complete control of how my imagery and artwork is used in terms of context, connotation and purpose. I have a hard time perceiving my imagery and words as being a product, especially when used to sell another. Another main factor is, that due to the narrative-based nature of my work and the relationships that exist (or hope to think exist) between people and my work, I feel that I must stay loyal to let it exist untouched by anything else besides the narrative itself.
CJ: Is it any different to selling artwork through a mainstream gallery?
KH: While both arenas involve commerce, I think that there is a distinct difference between them. When doing commercial work for a brand, one's artwork is used to sell the brand's product, whilst in the commercial gallery context one is selling his/her artwork. I don’t necessarily see working with a commercial gallery solely as an act of selling the artwork, but mainly creating an environment, an experience and essentially a new complete piece of art. Generally, and referencing the previous answer, these things aren’t black or white, nor is there any right or wrong.
CJ: There’s a lot of debate about the place words have in visual art. It’s interesting that in the current show in London you use more words in the ‘Abstract’ pieces; is writing, text still important to you, do you feel that there is a need to fill in meaning?
KH: I think there might have been a general misunderstanding in regards to my use of the word ‘abstract’ in the title of the exhibition. I was referring to a certain abstract notion of burden, weighing down on us. While its existence is ‘very real’, what composes it and our perception of it is intangible, or ‘abstract’.
I think that the pieces themselves leaned more towards a conceptual direction.
The text in my work has a few functions. While juxtaposing text with imagery, it serves as a means to correspond with the image – either by supporting or adding a different layer or interpretation to the image.
Other times, when standing alone, it can be more suggestive in the sense that it ‘suggests’ imagery, opposed to illustrating it.
Know Hope, The Other Side of the Fence; Courtesy of the artist.
CJ: You’ve said that dialogue with the public is important. Do you think abstract art can truly be an effective and accessible expression?
KH: I think that art that is more suggestive can allow a more visceral interaction and perception. By being non-specific in topic or form it creates a more universal dialogue.
Art is seen and perceived through the eyeglass of our subjective experience. When placed in the public space art becomes part of a larger reality, and parallel to that, becomes part of the situation that the viewers are in and seen through their own personal baggage.
I see my outdoor work as ‘engineered situations’ produced to become part of those experiences and attempting to create personal landmarks that remain even after the piece itself is gone.
CJ: The titles of the works in the London show in fact seem to speak in a direct, even frustrated voice, in contrast with the laconic, delicate aesthetic typical of your work: ‘Coexistence’, ‘Pledging Allegiance’, ‘Acknowledging borders as scars’, ‘Screaming at a Wall’ etc – but you’ve often talked not of addressing something specific, but rather to portray a collective struggle… Audiences must make the connection between your experience of Israel and Palestine and your work. Do you ever feel a pressure to address this directly?
KH: In the past few years, I feel that there’s been a shift in my work in terms of the direct tone in which it is communicated. In the first years of developing and using my iconography the focus was on establishing that language and familiarizing it with the viewer. Once I felt that a certain mutual mindset was created, I felt that I could address things in a more direct way while still staying clear of potholes such as finger pointing.
I always felt that a political discussion automatically creates a paradigm that imposes an ‘us against them’ way of thinking. Therefore, I preferred not to focus on the political issues themselves, but rather the minor human conditions that compose those larger issues.
It was when I started observing the pressing issues of patriotism and nationalism that the shift occurred. While perceiving these ideas as emotional mechanisms and creating parallels between them and emotional situations, I felt like I found a way to deal with ideas in a more straightforward nature, while still keeping them relatable and communicating a collective, universal struggle.
While specific connections and connotations can be made (and while those same connections might exist between me and myself), it’s important for me to show the indifference between the local and the global, by speaking of ‘a struggle’, as opposed to ‘the struggle, ‘a fence’ as opposed to ‘the fence’ and so on.
CJ: Do you think there is a renewed hope for a peaceful resolution?
KH: I’m a stubborn believer that we are still capable of recognizing each other, generally speaking. Common waters house the rising tides that we tread and I feel that this should be communicated relentlessly and forgivably.
CJ: I caught sight of this line in the newspaper The Anytimes: 'with our arms outreached to our maximum and true physical limit we’ll eventually reach one another…' Can we ever replace the urge to define and divide?
KH: Where we live and the places we inhabit inevitably bear the marks of our existence. These marks are natural, at times unintentional, whereas markings such as flags, borders and walls are deliberate, spiteful and vindictive.
I can only hope that they will be replaced, but that’s not really up to me to say if these outdated urges will continue to be so persistent.
ArtSlant would like to thank Know Hope for his assistance in making this interview possible.