Kris Knight at Katharine Mulherin Contemporary Art Projects (1080-1086 Queen West), today (Thursday, July 6, reception 7-10 pm ) through July 29 . 416-537-8827. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
When we hear the word "pompadour," we generally think of the greased prow of the 50s loner rebel. In his new show, Kris Knight has gone back to the style of its originator, Madame de Pompadour.
Marie Antoinette, for example, dazzled the pre-revolutionary French court with extreme coifs towering up to 3 feet high, adorned with flowers, flags, ornaments and tiny stuffed birds. Like the ill-fated queen, Knight's series of women with pompadours is all about tragic glamour and excess.
Taking his cues from the symbolism of Renaissance portraiture, Knight paints women - some close friends and relatives, some cultural icons - wearing their stories in their hair.
The issues the portraits reference, however, are universal and strikingly contemporary: drug addiction, marriage trouble, child-rearing, celebrity, feeling removed from life or trapped by expectations.
Judy Garland looks forlorn, a bed of red opium poppies garlanding her head, which is topped by a miniature unconscious Dorothy, her legs girlishly splayed out of her blue checked skirt. Courtney Love pops up like a wedding figure in her own blond mane, sporting three different noses, along with a glum-looking Kurt, a tombstone and Frances Bean.
Other portraits are more cryptic. A train with tiny pills flying out its smokestack derails off a woman's head in a painting about a friend's second thoughts about settling down.
Knight uses the glossiness of illustrative painting, tweaking details to make it a shade more painterly and generating tension through a delicate balancing act of opposing genres and idioms.
There is a strong tension also in the expressions of these women. Their evasive or smoulderingly passive stares are a shove back at anyone who's too read to label them.