Published in Amelia’s Magazine, 2011. Original article here.
The eye at the centre: Interview with artist Sam Knowles
Grand theories and big questions lie at the heart of Sam Knowles’ work, but what the artist wants more than anything is for the viewer to draw their own conclusions. ‘Fearful Sphere’ is showing now at the Simon Oldfield Gallery.
I’m a little early for my meeting with Sam Knowles, giving me a chance to wander the rooms of the Simon Oldfield Gallery by myself for a while. This means I’m all immersed by the time the artist arrives, slightly shy as he asks me what I think. For a moment I feel self-conscious at sharing my thoughts; this is a public gallery but what happens on the walls feels oddly private. But however personal the experience of viewing the art may be to the audience, this is Knowles’ first solo exhibition so it’s probably infinitely more precious to him.
The fact that the artwork is quite small in scale means you have to get quite close to take it in, adding to the sense of intimacy. But there’s something else to it as well, it’s a feeling that comes as you’re standing there, squinting, craning, wondering. The title of the exhibition is a reference to a quote by Pascal: ‘Nature is an infinite sphere, whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.’ It was Borges who called it a ‘Fearful Sphere’ in an essay discussing Pascal – just as Knowles makes his art from found materials, all these different elements are pieced together and subtly manipulated to hint at something else, something bigger, to some sort of truth we think is there but we can’t see or touch.
It’s the grand themes of metaphysics, philosophy and science that lie at the core of Knowles’ practice. ‘Metaphysics has to do with universal principles that helps you understand the world. While metaphysics is concerned with science, it also has a lot to do with God, as in, the idea that there are pre-ordained rules for things. That is how I see it, although others may not agree,’ Knowles explains as we sit down for a chat. Knowles is a keen reader of philosophy, and as we talk it becomes clear how the art incorporates many layers of meaning. Still, Knowles stresses how he wants the audience to feel free to interpret what they see in their own way: ‘I like leaving things to interpretation, and not give people strict ideas of what to think.’
Knowles’ titles are usually drawn from the topics in the old books that provide the base for the artwork, such as ‘Orbit’, ‘The Great Enterprise’ and ‘On the Nature of the Universe’. The common thread is a reference to a centre – it’s there as a halo around the ballerina’s head, it’s the point from which gold rays emerge, it’s the eye that remains still in the middle of swirled-paper vortex. ‘In Byzantine portraits, you’ll find that halos are perfectly centred on the right eye. There’s this idea that the eye is taking everything in, and it’s a bit arrogant, really. I wanted to contradict this idea.’
While Knowles is happy to explain the theoretical concepts when prompted, I should point out there is actually very little about the 27-year-old that suggests stuffy professor. While he’s eager to talk about his work, he asks me almost as many questions as I ask him. As we get sidetracked from talking about inspiration, Knowles breaks out of the artist-slash-philosopher mode for a moment when he tells me a story about his girlfriend; ‘Oh but don’t put that in!’
Back to the topic of inspiration, he admits to borrowing from many sources: ‘I take a lot of different things from different people, in fact a tutor once described me as a magpie,’ says Knowles, who graduated from Wimbledon College of Art in 2009. ‘But most of my inspiration comes from reading, fundamentally. I find objects, mainly books, and I spend ages searching for the right ones, looking for imagery that will work and then coming up with an idea. I sit endlessly in my studio, a tiny room with stacks and stacks of books, and go through piles of images. Sometimes it doesn’t work at all, it needs to be in that moment.’
One of the largest pieces in the show is called ‘Fundamental Principals of Metaphysics of Ethics’, where Knowles has laid out all the pages of a book by this name: ‘I absolutely loved that title.’ Painted in gold is a reproduction of Gustave Doré’s White Rose, an illustration from Dante’s Divine Comedy. Knowles has fractured the image so it’s up to the viewer’s to make a judgment about what it is, but in the right light you can still see the angels, circling the sun. ‘Sometimes a piece can come really quickly, but this one took time as I kept changing the idea,’ says Knowles, as we’re crouching down to catch the light reflecting off the gold. ‘I wanted the artworks in this exhibition to interact with each other. That was very important to me; the circle, the eye at the centre.’