Nikki Darling, "Shadow Boxing Mark McKnight"
It’s impossible to write about the work of Mark McKnight without talking about our friendship. A few starts and stops, meanderings into lonely soliloquies about body and representation, connections to Laura Aguilar, have all resulted in an eventual return to Mark as a friend. In particular, our friendship. There is as much to say about intimacy - how people relate interpersonally- as there is black and white photography.
We only get a piece.
Often, Mark’s bodies are angled in such a way that faces are missing entirely. “This is less about anonymity and more about my desire to represent archetypes within/from my own life - sure, they may represent my own body but also the bodies I desire.”
We get compartmentalized and objectified limbs, a whisper of five of clock shadow, lips, an eyebrow, a contortion of unseemly angles all fluid and flowing into a river of light and shadow. In an e-mail he writes, “I use the dark room to bury information into the blacks of my prints - I think this is queer. It is a refusal and directly at odds, at least historically, with the mediums purported functions like ‘pure description’, ‘objectivity’ and ‘fidelity.’ I am foregrounding my subjectivity in this refusal which is also an invitation to project/empathize/speculate/experience.” Over the course of writing this piece I will receive more e-mails and texts like this one, full of last minute thoughts, quotes and clarifications. More than once I will be asked if I’m sure I don’t want to interview him. There is a hunger to be both seen and understood and a gnawing suspicion that without his intervention neither can be done; and yet, his camera is the Hitchcock of our imaginings, revealing glimpses of what were too timid to look upon, only to unveil themselves more fantastic than we could have imagined. There is no intervention that could communicate the oddity and intimacy of what his eye sees, even if he is the last to understand why.
Mark lived the first twenty-seven years of his life as a straight man. This is important to the practice in as much as it’s important to know that Mark is gay. Why the reticence to be seen for so many years? Who was he hiding from? As we’ve come to know each other better, the question I now ask, isn’t what was he hiding from but rather, who was he hiding?
The work follows a poetic thread, bringing together disparate images in group or set aiming to create restrained or orderly meaning. An attempt to wrest a kind of control back from the unknown. A language that requires an order to establish a larger truth. In the title piece, …if water forgets how to play mirror, a man stares at his reflection, an echo of Narcissus permeates the work. The accepted idea is that Narcissus was admiring himself, but what if in actuality he was trying to understand himself instead? The works invite this sort of introspection, a false sense of self obsession that might otherwise go unnoticed if the stark images of bodies in contorted cropping, buildings and empty signage disguised as nature landscapes didn’t force the viewer to think on their own experiences in order to create meaning in the image. In this Pandora’s box of personal intimacies what is being looked at in the work becomes relatable. It’s a face you know but who’s name you forgot; It could be anything and yet it’s specific.
We walk mostly silent together through the LA river, my dog trailing behind. I’ve got Mark’s camera bag slung over my shoulder, he lugs a large tripod and his beautiful, vintage view camera, in it’s carry all. We’re after a shadow he found the previous day on this same walk, the three of us, only that time we were here for the dog, that she could stretch her tiny legs. Today we are hunting, looking to see what Mark saw, to uncover a contortion made with clouds and sunlight, a cement wrinkle in time. Suddenly he stops, there it is, a large drainage tunnel cleaved into the riverbank, a phallic bullet that can only be seen when the sun hits a certain way.
Two weeks later at the at the Vincent Price Museum, Laura Aguilar retrospective, Mark documents a photograph featuring Aguilar in her home, smiling, girlish, surrounded by her favorite things. She’s in goofy sneakers. We agree that it’s a striking image in contrast to her other work which invites an introspective glimpse into her psyche and how it is informed by her exterior. In one of Aguilar’s most famous photographs she sits in the bright desert, sun blinding, sky blue like a stroke of paint, her large frame hunched, back facing us and becomes a part of the landscape. A boulder, a plateau. She becomes that from which she came, Tierra. Near these images of a smiling Aguilar are also pictures of friends and peers, gay men no longer with us, many lost to the AIDS crises of the 1980’s. “Sometimes,” Mark sighs, “I think about the fact that gay men my age nearly lost an entire generation of role models. We’re orphans.”
Orphaned by an unrelenting, political homophobic refusal to address the reality of AIDS, Mark has also been torn from an identity. Nuevo Mexicano on his mother’s side he was born into a people disenfranchised and denied access to their former country, Mexico, called citizens of the United States, their property seized and history erased. Even within Nuevo Mexicano families, internalized racism has created entire generations of self proclaimed Spaniards rather than the truth, an acceptance of Mexican identity. Siding with the colonizer, many Nuevo Mexicanos have erased their time as Mexicans, their blending of indigenous South West tribes and Spaniards, they deny their own miscegenation. Why might an entire population of people try to undo their identities unless it was clear upon the Southwest’s seizure from Mexico by the United States during the Treaty of Guadeloupe Hidalgo, that non white bodies were enslaved and murdered. Even the Southwest’s untethered past, reimagined, denied and erased plays it’s traumas on Mark’s work.
A few days following the Aguilar visit I receive an e-mail with the following words:
the world rubbing up against itself
the world rubbing up against the body
the body rubbing up against the world
Other reoccurring motifs include bricks, cracked walls and sidewalks, stairs that lead to foreclosed homes, half destroyed or stalled in construction. Forever leading someplace that doesn’t exist. He walks with his head down through alleys, kicking small debris, bottle caps, old combs. Stops at graffitied walls but keeps on, too obvious to the naked eye, appreciated but not cataloged. This is a treasure hunt for the neglected unseen.
The photographs are about acceptance, of the body yes, but identity and interiority as well. A wall isn’t just a place to hang a sign, it’s a landmark on a street that morning commuters, mother’s in a rush, lazy stragglers, city workers at bus stops, old men shuffling to liquor stores, children skipping to school, remember and register on their daily journeys. And when the sign is removed what does the wall become? What was it ever? How do we change our perception, ideas and reference now that it’s gone? The wall without the sign, with only the outline of where it used to hang, this is the photograph that Mark develops.
All good work seeks to re-orient us from a place in which we stand assured in our knowing. How is it then that we un-know in order to understand what we are truly looking at? What did Mark see for twenty-seven years when he looked in the mirror? What did he remove in order to see himself?
And now to close with an Emily Dickinson poem of Mark’s choosing, a poem which for all it’s bleak queerness, still scales the landscape of splendor.
"To fill a Gap
Insert the Thing that caused it—
Block it up
With Other—and 'twill yawn the more—
You cannot solder an Abyss
Nikki Darling’s music criticism and essays appear regularly in the Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, KCET Artbound, and others. Her 2018 debut novel, “Fade Into You,” divulges the life of a Mexican American punk barely surviving in high school.