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Gina Knee Art Analysis
The most revealing aspects of Gina Knee’s life are not her letters, personality, fears, abilities, friendships and marriages, but rather it is her art that shows her true vision about the world in which she lived. The main medium she worked with was watercolor, experimenting with gouache, tempera, and finally oil in her later years. As an artist with little or no training, it took several attempts for Gina to get comfortable as an artist in the challenging New Mexican terrain. The foreground and background of her early works do not come together into a well-rounded composition. They lack depth and interest. This is how her style started to unfold. What she lacked in formal artistic training, she eventually learned to leave out of her works, becoming more reliant on the spontaneity of forms in space and color.

In her first few years in New Mexico, Knee focused her work on Native American rituals and religious themes. Her early works were greatly influenced by the John Marin watercolors she saw in New York City. In turn, she created her own palette of colors and painted the rhythm of what she saw through symbolic patterns and a unique visual language. An exhibition catalogue from 1933 describes her activities during those early years as, “Working out a palette suited to the mysterious dark exhortations, the medieval stolidity, of the Native American dances and Penitente rites and processions on which her interest centered.”

Each figure in this series of work is defined against the background; even details are clearly defined with her brush. Her later work shows a loosening in technique and a much more playful style of painting. Later renditions of similar ritualistic subject matter show a more complex composition where the figures are merely fragments of color and are arranged in such a way that a relationship between background and foreground disappears. She flattened the spatial relationship between the figures and landscape; perhaps commenting on the relationship between the figures and nature itself. Gina showed a clear attachment to Native American ritual and religious subject matter, but her work changed as she became more and more comfortable with the watercolor medium. Soon after, the landscape genre became her passion. She spent the remainder of the 1930s and 1940s working in this area.

By 1933, just as she changed her name from Virginia to Gina, her technique became much more abstract. Her brushstroke loosened even more. The figures became softer and more fluid. She developed more spontaneity and confidence to work with abstraction after her short study with the artist Ward Lockwood.

Due to her new marriage to Ernest Knee in 1933, which led to their move out of the artistic center of Santa Fe, her paintings became much more tranquil, with vivid landscapes based in the Tesuque Valley. Her watercolors showed her newfound artistic freedom in the country. She focused on the seasonal changes of the landscape and the solitude she found there. She felt a true connection to nature, and wanted to transfer this energy through her paintbrush. She created works where nature was not presented in orderly fashion with rigid formations. She abandoned the ideas of perspective that she had once tried to capture in failed attempts at painting landscape, and gave the control to the instinctive chaos of nature. For instance, she painted meandering mountain landscapes and village scenes that fluidly move all over the picture-plane with no regard to traditional figure/ground relationships.

As the US entered World War Two in 1941, huge changes in lifestyle were forced upon her. She no longer felt safe and secure as she once had. Soon the feeling of contentment that the country had brought to her, changed to feelings of isolation and confinement. She painted circus subject matter where she unveiled some of these emotions. With a fanciful and colorful rendering of circus animals and performers, she painted common scenes of energetic chaos.

Unknowingly, Gina Knee started to create a visual language to describe her surroundings and inner feelings. After her husband, Ernest, moved to California to find work in support of the war effort, Gina was left alone to care for their home in the Tesuque Valley. During this period of time, her paintings started to display her true struggle with isolation and frustration, not only for herself but also for women in general. Her compositions became tightly packed with images, thin fragmented lines, quick washes, and zigzag patterns creating moody colors. She left no empty spaces and no center of focus. There are also many scenes of women positioned behind windows, where they gaze out blankly. These women are bound by their surroundings, unable to do more than peer out.

Like many artists, Gina was using her art to clarify her ways of thinking. Her feelings of loneliness became unbearable, and she sought companionship as she made the decision to join Ernest in California. During her stint in Los Angeles, Gina took to the style of the California landscape and its teeming beach landscapes. She ventured into the unknown terrain, finding things like fish skeletons, animal bones, shells, driftwood and sand in order to familiarize herself with such imagery. These objects became the subjects of her densely packed compositions full of life, color and reviving symbols of the rebirth of nature.

With her divorce from Ernest Knee and new marriage to Alexander Brook in 1944, her oeuvre would change once again. With the encouragement of her new husband and new surrounding in Georgia, Gina ventured into the oil medium. She struggled with mastery of the new medium, and felt the urge to change to a more formal approach to painting. She succeeded in creating paintings of southern scenes where the landscape and villages relate to one another in convincing space. She went on to win the first prize at the national painting exhibition in New Orleans in 1947. This raise in confidence led to great recognition among her peers. She continued to work in the oil medium into her later years, returning to watercolors to get a sense of comparison.

Some critics have tried to classify Gina Knee as a regionalist painter. It was regional subject matter, in that she painted the landscape scenes in the parts of the country she lived in, but she never truly became a regionalist. Her interest was less about painting realistic scenes of American landscape and more about describing the land she saw and relating it to the surrounding climate and natural light. Each new place that she ventured to created a new atmosphere for her to ponder and a new landscape to discover. She enjoyed learning the myths and legends of the people living in each new place. She became connected to the land through the use of her paintbrush. In an interview for “The Star Talks” she expressed her never-ending love of the Southwest: “I never got over New Mexico-the landscape, the mesas, mountains, the green and tan.”

 

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