Island Residents: Silke Otto-Knapp's atmospheric new paintings

Images of Otto-Knapp’s studio during her Fogo Island residency, 2011: Courtesy the artist.Images of Otto-Knapp’s studio during her Fogo Island residency, 2011: Courtesy the artist.

Last summer, German-born, London, U.K.-based painter Silke Otto-Knapp participated in a residency on Fogo Island off the northeast coast of Canada. For the past several years, Otto-Knapp has been working in watercolour, producing her paintings by washing down the images and reworking them layer by layer to create works that are ethereal and delicate. Magenta contributor and curator Aileen Burns also participated in the residency, and reports on her visit to Otto-Knapp’s studio as the painter prepared for her first solo exhibition in the U.S.

By Aileen Burns

Off the northeast coast of Canada lies a cluster of small islands that once attracted Europeans to the New World year after year. The waters of Newfoundland were teeming with cod, making the cold rough rocks of Fogo Island legendary in the Old World. The sailors who made the treacherous journey across the Atlantic from the British Isles and elsewhere were rewarded with some the best cod-fishing waters the world had ever seen. The outport communities, such as those on Fogo Island, were established permanently in the late 1700s and were not as isolated as one might think; Newfoundland’s trade-routes to the Caribbean, France, Portugal, Spain, Italy and, of course, the United Kingdom, were an integral part of cultural life and subsistence. The name Fogo is derived from fuego, the Portuguese word for fire.

The disastrous impact of industrial fishing techniques led to a depletion of the cod stocks and in 1992 the government instituted a moratorium on the fisheries. This took the primary means of subsistence for Fogo Islanders off the table. In an attempt to breath new life into a dwindling population, the wealthy entrepreneur Zita Cobb, who grew up on Fogo Island, initiated an artist-in-residence program, Fogo Island Arts Corporation, where I spent last summer in the company of artists Patty Chang, David Kelly, Silke Otto-Knapp and Hannah Richards, and curator Johan Lundh.

Each of us had a traditional and charming home in a different outport community on the island – mine was in the centrally located Joe Batt’s Arm – and a modern architectural statement piece for a studio. All workspaces are located in a relatively secluded parts of the island where artists-in-residence can enjoy ocean views from picture windows in relative solitude, although as anyone who has lived in a small and sociable communality knows, privacy is not a rule to be strictly abided. Both locals out on the daily walks and tourists to the island make regular appearances at all studio doors and windows.

On July 29, I walked the kilometre or so from my house in Joe Batt’s Arm to Silke’s Squish Studio, located on the edge of the traditionally Irish community of Tilting. The little studio she was occupying is white, angular and so close to the sea that it looks like a beached iceberg when viewed from the hillside above it. During storms, which are frequent even in the summer months, she reported that waves would crash all the way up to her windows, making cleaning the glass panes in front of her an essential component of her painting process. After all, it would be a shame to obscure the view of Fogo Island’s rocky shores or block what little light breaks through the clouds and into the studio.

Although Silke had the good fortune to watch extraordinary sunsets on the sea, glimpse whales’ tails flipping water into the air, study dolphins playing and witness the slow progress of icebergs on their southward journeys, none of these experiences were directly translated into the paintings she produced on the island. She spent the three months working in the Squish Studio, preparing for her first U.S. solo-show A light in the moon/MATRIX 239 at the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum. There she completed a series of water colour paintings on canvas depicting dancers, or the setting in which their performances take place, drawing inspiration from the choreography of Bronislava Nijinska, George Balanchine and the art world’s favourite dancer, Yvonne Rainer. The show was not an attempt to depict a certain style or period in dance, but one element that reappears in the selection of paintings is the study of group formations: their tensions, their internal dynamics. 

When I asked Silke if working on the North Atlantic was affecting either the form or content of her paintings, she replied that, as is the norm in her practice, she was working from photographs, mostly historic, but conceded that certain kinds of light, atmosphere and elements of the landscape were starting to creep in. Indeed, the diluted shimmery silver paints that were everywhere in her studio indicated that the atmosphere of the island was exerting its undeniably powerful influence on her work.

Silke Otto-Knapp’s A light in the moon/MATRIX 239 ran at the Berkeley Art Museum from September  30, 2011 to January 15, 2012. Curator Kitty Scott includes Otto-Knapp's work in an upcoming group exhibition opening this March at the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec in Quebec City.

Aileen BurnsAileen Burns is an emerging writer and curator based between Toronto and New York. She recently completed her MA in critical and curatorial studies at Columbia University and has held positions at the Whitney (New York), Justina M. Barnicke Gallery (Toronto) and Mercer Union (Toronto). In addition to contributing to Magenta Magazine Online, her writing appears in Art in America, Canadian Art and C Magazine.