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The Artist Sculpting Solely with Found Fabrics

The aquamarine ombré shirt Todd Knopke is wearing when he greets me is the first clue that he loves color. But you wouldn’t be able to tell when you arrive at his studio, as the outside is a facade of worn black bars shielding a glass storefront and a sign above it that says “UNISEX” in slightly faded red letters. Inside, the studio is a mesmerizing mishmash. The room is saturated with different hues and textures, vibrant shades seeping into every nook. The only place not covered in art is the ceiling.

Knopke’s been in the game since 1993, weaving intricate sculptures out of random fabric he finds on the streets. These patchwork creations have been shown all over, from Art Basel Miami to Vassar College to the Jeff Bailey Gallery, where he held his most recent exhibition. His extensive list of work which ranges from anthropomorphic fountains to 30 foot tall tapestries may all sound absurd and unrelated, yet they all share one striking feature: the commonality of color. Milk’s Bianca Marie Carpio got a chance to sit down with the artist hidden behind the unisex hair salon storefront and discussed his thoughts on social media, soundspheres, and The Very Hungry Caterpillar.

All of your intense work with colors makes me think, would you ever go into film or other works? Maybe illustrating a picture book?

That’s a nice idea; I like that. But I’m obsessed with the work I’m making with these little bits of quilts and tapestry. Maybe I should make some children’s books since I think about Eric Carle a lot. You know that guy? He wrote ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar’ and those really basic ones that look like they’re made of little pieces, like it’s collage. Basically what I’m doing is making a collage too.

What’s your thought process like when you’re making these pieces?

I think it’s important to focus as much on the stuff you’re making as you can. I believe that can have a profound effect on people. In the end, that’s what stands up. In some ways, you can be an absolutely horrible person, but if your artwork transcends that, it can represent beauty. Caravaggio was this amazing painter we all know, yet he was a total murderer and rapist. There’s something that actual things can do that can transcend the individual. That makes me think of the movie, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. When you see that, you don’t think of Michel Gondry. I mean, Michel Gondry is a phenomenal director, but when you see the actual movie it’s not about him. You think about the characters you experience in the film and what you feel.

Congratulations on ‘Bright Air, Brilliant Fire.’ I really like the names of your exhibitions. Can you tell me more about how you name them since they’re very distinct?

It’s been interesting lately since my work has changed a lot in the last couple years. Before it was very narrative, so language was sort of more easily applied when I began. I was thinking about words and some sort of description that went along with what I was building. The new work, which is more abstract, has become a little more difficult. I think the the title opens up the artwork a little bit more. Like, seeing a portrait and then seeing “Pink Nude”, doesn’t open up the doors in any way. The goal is to use language as abbreviated a form as possible so it doesn’t get too much in the way of the viewing of the object.

I saw that one, “cec.”

Yes, the acronym for “changing everything carefully.”

Can you explain that acronym in regards to your work?

Transformation was a big part of the work I was making for that show. It was also something I was thinking about a lot in my life. Every little decision, whether it’s in an artwork or on a daily basis, like whether you get the plastic bag or not, I believe 100% how each one is really powerful. And that it’s easy to just go through life making quick decisions, and sometimes that’s good, but doing it mindfully can actually have a bigger positive effect on the world at large. Adding a little bit of yellow or a little bit of red here changes it in a pretty big way if it’s thought through and made in a careful, deliberate manner.

How do you feel about social media’s central role in today’s art world?

I don’t know if I dig it. I’m a bit old, and I feel old when I think about social media. It doesn’t interest me as much physical space? [laughs] I’m very interested in what people are doing with it, to a degree. I think it’s hard. I haven’t seen that much ‘art’ that’s using social media that goes beyond it. And I also think that one problem I have with it, is that it transforms, like Instagram, the way we see things. Everything’s so fast, fast, fast, fast that you don’t take any time to sit with something.

Because Instagram is becoming a big thing where people post their art, that controversy with Richard Prince and art appropriation, is that something you feel you have to worry about?

I don’t worry about it, like whatever anyone’s going to print from my work is not gonna be the actual thing. That’s where the physicality of what I make is special. The Richard Prince thing, he’s been stealing from other people and using other people’s images and ideas for a long time. It seems like an obvious gesture to pull from Instagram and reproduce them. I don’t know why that’s interesting to people? [laughs] It doesn’t bother me. I have some friends that are photographers that post their work on their website and they have had people steal the images. Just straight up steal. And now you paste the copyright sign over that, which now anyone can get rid of with Photoshop, so it’s almost like what’s the point? I think it’s just part of the deal if you post something out in the world, like you’re kinda giving it up to the world.

What inspired that move to more abstract art?

The move to abstraction came about six years ago. I saw two exhibitions that just knocked me on my ass. They were almost the opposite of what I was making. A lot of it has to do with openness and mystery. A lot of times, when there’s a figure there, it’s hard to have mystery. It’s almost like a wall of description that gets in the way. At the same time, I fell in love with these two musicians, White Rainbow and Staghair, who are basically individual dudes that make soundscapes. But it completely transformed the way I was thinking about being a space. They made me realize that I needed to strip down my work. The actual object is what you’re experiencing rather than the interjection of you into a picture plane. I just wanted there to be a more one to one relationship than trying to slip through a whole storyline.

Can you pinpoint anything you think you’ve reflected in your art?

Most of what I make is trying to get at something I haven’t experienced yet or don’t fully understand, even if I could experience it. Like the energy that’s coming down to Earth from lightyears away…what does that look like? It’s more an interest in the ineffable or things I can’t visually see. I think that I’m constantly inspired in life and that stuff comes through in the work in ways that I don’t, or can’t, really know.

Todd Knopke photographed exclusively for Milk by Sarah Kjelleren

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