Art Review: 'Jay Knapp: 10 Years' at Box Heart Gallery

Kurt Shaw
| Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Ever since Detroit artist Jay Knapp started making art in the late 1990s, it was clear his work was going to be an accumulation of many components covering a wide range of topics.

He just never figured it would be so much.

Knapp's solo exhibit, “10 Years,” runs through Oct. 3 at Box Heart Gallery in Bloomfield.

“We were legitimately stunned when we started sorting out all the work for the show, and it took an easy six months to decide which groups were going to be represented,” he says.

Despite the diversity, Knapp always tried to keep a clear vision of where he wanted his work to go, what he wanted it to do and how he wanted to do it.

“My ultimate goal never was to be known as a regional artist, or someone who followed a particular school of thought, or as a sculptor or a painter, but rather to be seen as an American artist,” Knapp says. “I always wanted to largely use my work to challenge, communicate and re-evaluate American concepts and ideas.”

That's something clearly expressed with his wood-turned sculptures that are semi-abstract representations of mushroom clouds and speak to America's relationship with its nuclear weapons.

Nearly a dozen on display, they are from a body of work called “Nests and Shells with Skirts and Bells,” which Knapp began working on back in 2009 and has remained as one of the centerpieces of his work.

Each sculpture was inspired by and named after American atomic weapons tests, such as “Ivy” named after Operation Ivy, the eighth series of American nuclear tests.

Knapp makes each by hand out of wood with every possible attention to detail.

“I wanted to create the most lush and sensuous path possible for people to allow them to change their opinion of things they feared, that caused them anxiety, and see them in a new way, where the things we create that cause us to be afraid may actually give us peace and stability,” he says.

Not all of the sculptures are about nuclear weapons.

“Money Spool,” which features string made from woven dollar bills, delves into the topics of economics and austerity.

“I've always been interested in aboriginal skills and tool-making, and finding an unexpected, superior value in a natural material,” Knapp says. “That being said, it occurred to me one night that the dollars I had in my wallet would make remarkable string — much better than what I could buy if I took those dollars to the hardware store — and ultimately were more valuable to me as string rather than whatever little trinket I might be able to purchase with them.”

Thus, what started out small and simple, wound up becoming a rather complex conceptual sculpture.

“It's definitely become one of my favorites,” he says, “and now I'm turning all types of things into string, including a whole book of Clement Greenberg essays.”

Painting is something Knapp has always done but rarely ever exhibited. All untitled, those on display are all abstract watercolors. “It's something personal that I do when I'm not working on everything else,” he says. “The longer I'm an artist, the stronger and more solidified the narrative of my work seems to become.

“But, when I'm painting, I'm able to leave all the social commentary behind and focus on expanding my own view into unknown areas of myself and my vision of my own art.”

Knapp's digital art adds a touch of high-tech to the exhibit. But its roots are based solely in the decaying urban sprawl of Detroit.

“Living around Detroit, it's difficult to avoid running into photos of the ‘ruins' of the city at any given group show or gallery, and whenever I did, I felt like only a small portion of the whole story was being told,” he says.

So, Knapp says he spent the better part of 2013 working on a photography project called “A Long Day's Journey” that focused on where the inhabitants of Detroit moved to, namely the surrounding suburbs.

Eventually, using an array of programs, Knapp broke the images down and reassembled them into abstractions that he felt were more accurate representations of the moods and spaces he was trying to capture.

In pieces like “99 Dreams I Have Had, and Every One in Red” and “One for Franny Glass,” the decay is dished out in small, palatable doses, as if dots in a dot matrix that describe a much larger picture.

As diverse as the works are, taken as a whole, they flesh out an artist's oeuvre over the past 10 years, yet each piece resonates with the artist's hand and singular, but curious, creative vision.

“With this exhibition, I was more than graciously allowed to assemble the show that I always wanted people to see, because I always wanted people to see the work the way I see it, to see the relationships between all the components, how they fit together, and also the chance to see the stuff like the paintings that have never been seen before, but are really the mortar that holds the big ideas together.”

Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at

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