Avel de Knight’s Myths and Mirages
Excerpts from an essay that appeared in de Knight’s 2001 retrospective exhibit catalog by Richard Waller, Executive Director of the University of Richmond Museums.
Avel de Knight and I first met in 1978 while we were both at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and this is when I first became aware of his work. In the intervening years, I would occasionally encounter his art at various exhibitions and always be struck by the power of the images I saw. Upon hearing of his death, I knew I had lost a friend, and we had lost a strong voice in the visual arts. He was indeed one of the most visionary and expressive African American artists of the twentieth century.
Working closely with Stephen J. Tyson and Sunchita “Toni” Tyson, the three of us went through the large body of work that remained in the Estate of the artist to select the paintings and drawings that are included in this retrospective, a tribute to the artistic genius of Avel de Knight. Although he was meticulous in how he left his estate, he nevertheless remained elusive as we pored over the sketches, drawings, watercolors, and paintings, over the trials and experiments, and over the more finished pieces, to determine what works would best show his development and mastery as an artist. As we viewed for the first time one surprising work after another, his presence hovered over us as we were deeply drawn into the inner workings of his art and soul. Most importantly, our selection from this large part of his oeuvre includes many of his most engaging works, from quickly rendered images of the world as he saw it to the exquisitely finished paintings of an imaginary place of mystery and beauty.
One incredible find was the unpublished portfolio of illustrations for Thomas W. Higginson’s 1870 book on the American Civil War, Army Life in a Black Regiment. Created in 1969–1973, they are done with the same intensity we find in Avel’s other works and are perhaps the closest he came to directly commenting on the social unrest of the 1970s by illustrating a book from the 1870s. Not politically active, Avel was subversively political in the main body of his work by melding African imagery with Western classical mythology, and by having these images take central stage in his art.
Avel once stated, “Certainly the building up, effacing, and altering of each successive image infuses the final image, I believe, with the spiritual glow so typical of my painting. Thematically, my symbols are all metaphors for the natural processes: time, space, energy, radiation of light, and the birth-life-death-afterlife cycles.” Given his classical training in France and his involvement as an academician of the American Academy of Design, viewed as conservative by many in the art world, he was still able to develop a romantic idealism that engendered a radical classicism and a personal iconography. In a sense, he created a visual language to explore the uncharted realms of this imagined place, a world of winged beings, godlike warriors, angelic messengers, idealized figures, ancient pyramids, volcanoes, and monuments. These are the stuff of dreams, their meanings as symbols and metaphors shift before our very eyes. The French artist Eugène Delacroix wrote, “Art, like poetry lives through fictions. Propose to the professional realist the painting of supernatural objects: a god, a nymph, a monster, a fury, all those things of the imagination which transport the mind!” Avel was able to conjure up the most intriguing fictions. Clearly influenced by the French Symbolist movement and known to admire Odilon Redon and Gustave Moreau, Avel has emerged as a symbolist who is distinctly American in his viewpoint and attitude. He is a symbolist painter who has embraced classical harmony with a contemporary reworking of mythology.
The art critic Karl Lunde wrote of Avel’s mirage images, “They are spiritual paintings and his landscape is the landscape of the ‘beyond,’ a desert without horizons, where sky and sand merge, where clouds congeal into images and riders appear in the sunset dust. Forms swell into clarity and the world is iridescent and vague.” Ordinary objects. such as shells and masks, take on extraordinary meanings in his “Mirage Series” and in many other works. Avel stated that the shell was a birth symbol as well as a sea symbol, and the pyramid was both an ideal of perfection and a source of energy. It is evident that he intended for us to view these images on several levels; it is equally certain that he wanted us to do our own translations of his visual language. Art historian Edgar Wind wrote, “A myth gets its animation from a mystery,” and Avel reveled in the pleasure of setting his stage with mysterious circumstances. We do not quite know why a shrouded figure moves through a “far city,” or why men are leading a winged horse, or why an angel whispers into an ear, or why a tattooed warrior quietly stands in repose. Mystery begets myth. His invented myths and eerie mirages become a new reality.
As Lowery S. Sims once wrote about a figure in one of Avel’s paintings, “Surely he is the artist, caught in the present, journeying forever toward other times, and other realities in search of his idea. And we too can join…” His paintings evoke this contemplative response in us, and we can join in the artist’s journey to that place of his imagination, a world filled with our own unique interpretations of these wondrous mythological beings and mirages that are, as Avel suggested, “seen but never reached.”