Kris Knight's intimate portraiture tells stories of queerness, vulnerability and tenderness

The Canadian painter sees his work as a portal for understanding his past and present experiences.

17 December 2020

The last year has seen Canadian painter Kris Knight turn a focus onto the topics of wellbeing, respite and personal recollection. A time for much-needed thought and consideration, Kris has spent most of his days in his studio, located in an old 1800s factory in downtown Toronto. Here – in what used to make lithographed tinware and is now an arts and culture hub – Kris gets to work on his figurative oil paintings and portraits, a practice that’s now been in the works for the past 15 years.

Kris’ long-standing love affair with oil painting dates back to his time in university, where he studied drawing and painting at OCADU in Toronto. “I love everything about painting, the smell, the chemistry, the texture and the forgiveness that the medium offers when wiping away a dissatisfactory layer,” he says, commenting on how he never quite gets bored of this very process. “I’m always learning what kind of painter I am and what kind of painter I want to be; I’m never satisfied with my work and this keeps me motivated and curious about the medium in my quest to make a good painting.”

There’s something quite telling about his work. The painter, who’s originally from rural Ontario, refers to himself as a “shy, quiet, curious person,” who treads the line between being calm and not being able to stand still. It’s this very restlessness and eagerness to find out more about the world that effortlessly transfers into his work, which sees tender, pastel-tinted portraiture of his LGBTQ friends and acquaintances brought to life on the canvas.


Kris Knight: The Climber (Copyright © Kris Knight, 2016)

Over the years, Kris’ practice has opened the doors to collaborations with fashion designers such as Gucci and has been curated by Christian Lacroix, as well as within other disciplines such as music, art direction and set design. This collaborative nature is mimicked in his paintings, whereby Kris adheres to an engaging process that involves asking questions and listening to his subjects’ stories. A technique used to comfort them into feeling less nervous, it allows Kris to not only reach a sense of mutuality, but to preserve a memory of this person that he will go on to remember long after their meeting.

What’s more is that Kris sees these staged sittings in his studio as a way to present a portal to the type of person he is, and has been in the past; his work enables him to delve into his past experiences with great intent. Thus, these paintings are just as much a celebration of queerness as celebratory of vulnerability and tenderness. “Even though I paint other people, I see these paintings as a vehicle of my own storytelling,” he tells It’s Nice That on the topic of his most recent endeavours. “My models are both the subject and the performer.”

The more that his subjects open up, the more comfortable they both become with sharing their usually uncomfortable stories. “I am reminded of these narratives when I paint them from the reference materials I took during our studio session,” he says. “But it also stores up my own memories and how so many experiences that queer people go through are just as common as they are unique.”

It's interesting too, that many of Kris' subjects are often facing away from his gaze – not in the way that depicts hostility, either. Instead, Kris likes to show a level of comfort and intimacy between the two of them, proven by his subjects' relaxed and comfortable postures. This is evident within his two recent works which, in contrast, are front facing but each depict a sense of calm and ease. “My last two painting series were explorations into intimacy through narratives that revolved around performance, queerness and representation within the dynamic of seeing and being seen," he says. And this very much concludes that this shy, quiet and restless painter uses his medium as an empathetic vehicle – one that provides the tools needed to express himself and his subjects in the most necessary means possible.


Kris Knight: Let’s Not Speak So Heavy (Copyright © Kris Knight, 2020)


Kris Knight: Auscultate (Copyright © Kris Knight, 2020)


Kris Knight: Auscultate (Copyright © Kris Knight, 2020)


Kris Knight: Green Glow Screens (Copyright © Kris Knight, 2019)


Kris Knight: Shadow Web (Copyright © Kris Knight, 2019)


Kris Knight: Greenhouse Huffer (Copyright © Kris Knight, 2019)


Kris Knight: Self-Care Sunday (Copyright © Kris Knight, 2019)


Kris Knight: In the Morning We Must Sweep Out the Shadows (Copyright © Kris Knight, 2016)


Kris Knight: A Shadow of a Shadow (Copyright © Kris Knight, 2016)

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About the Author

Ayla Angelos

Ayla was an editorial assistant back in June 2017 and has continued to work with us on a freelance basis. She has spent the last seven years as a journalist, and covers a range of topics including photography, art and graphic design. Feel free to contact Ayla with any stories or new creative projects.

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