UFOS: Home in Another Universe

By Valerie Andrews

Karla Knight, Fantastic Universe (More Than You Know) courtesy of the artist.

For 20 years, artist Karla Knight has been chaneling an alien civilization—with operating instructions written in a strange but wonderfully plausible alphabet. In May 2021, she had her first museum survey, Karla Knight: Navigator, at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, CT.  Her alphabets are embroidered or painted on weathered grain sacks, and the show includes ledger books filled with images of spaceships with a humorous and other-worldly quality.

Where did these images come from? Play was the genesis. When Knight’s son Henry was around 4, she invited him into her studio, and over time, they produced a body of work she would call “Aliens & Objects.”  Mother and son worked side-by-side, their material spread out on the floor, drawing on repurposed file-folders, with Henry rendering his favorite subject—aliens with big eyes and heads and spindly arms and legs in magic marker—and Karla overlaying  organic shapes in fleshy-brown oil paint.  Words and symbols became part of this exchange as Henry grew older and began to read.  

Karla Knight and Henry Ace Knight, Aliens & Objects #38, 1998 Courtesy of the artist and Andrew Edlin Gallery

“When you watch kids enter the world of written languages, it’s fascinating,” she recalled. “They start making their letters and then mess them up and make them their own. Watching my son do this, I thought, ‘Why can’t I make up my own language?’ I put some of my son’s writing in my journal, and then I started to make up some letters around it. I don’t hear the language in my head yet, but I have dreamed in it. It’s become a full-fledged language to me — I’ll just sit there at night and write in it like it’s English.”

Knight’s earlier work dealt with morphing landscapes inspired by her childhood in the Hudson Valley.  Yet out of that innocent and playful collaboration with Henry came a constellation of UFOs and what appears to be a series of messages from another universe.  “I do feel like I’m a bridge between worlds,”  Knight has said. “That has always felt like my earthly job.”

Karla Knight, Blue Navigator, courtesy of the artist

After graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design, Knight lived in Manhattan, supporting her painting as a book indexer.  In the 1980s, she began working with lists of words—typed out onto notecards on an antique typewriter. This led to her series, Super Eye Vision.  Under the colorful header “MUTANT MISGIVINGS,” are thirty two-word entries: Sense Organ, Foolish Copy, Prickly Tail, Nerve Niche, Broad Stump, Hairy Trap, Living Jelly, and so on. Later she would move to Santa Fe, New Mexico, and find inspiration in the desert landscape, experimenting with ethereal shapes.

Critics have compared Knight to two women artists attuned to the  paranormal—the Swedish mystic Hilma af Klint, who fused modernism with images that came to her in seances, and Agnes Pelton, the “Desert Transcendentalist” who painted luminous portals and apparitions. 

Seeing Af Klint’s show The Spiritual in Art, in Chicago in 1987  was liberating for  Knight:  “I love that she didn’t want her work seen for years — she felt ahead of her time and she was aware of the time it would take for people to even be able to comprehend her work. Her art strikes a very deep chord with me, and I think it does in most people that have seen it. People want something more than what they can see or understand.”

Yes, we love a mystery. Yet we are also hungry for the imaginal, the whimsical—the kind of art that invites us to indulge in our own forms of creative play.  Knight’s work is an opportunity to enter this “what if?” space.  She doesn’t present us with a set of  recognizable images —- the equivalent of “visual facts”—  she entices us to consider other forms of life and to enter a dialogue with another galaxy.   

Her alphabet resembles ancient hieroglyphics yet the characters feel oddly familiar, as though they might hold the secret to our own evolution.  Yet her spaceships seem to emerge from a tesseract—a tear in time—suggesting that we each have a doppleganger in a parallel universe.   You can’t decode Knight’s paintings, you just have to let go and trust your imagination.  You might view them as a fragment of some forgotten memory—or a hint of what’s to come.   Knight’s work seems to assure us that we’re connected to some distant galaxy.  (If you can’t afford a seat on the next space shuttle, you can order the museum catalogue for Navigator here.)

Below, detail from Fleet 2 and Orbit  by Karla Knight, courtesy of the artist and the Andrew Edlin Gallery, New York.

Where does this otherworldly vision come from?  Knight knew she was an artist at the age of 6.   She also grew up in a household that was steeped in the occult and open to the notion of life on other planets.  “My father wrote books, many of them for children, on science and history and astronomy as well as poltergeists and ghosts and UFOs,” she explains. “He had books about psychic phenomena and mediums and the history of UFOs in his library, as well as classical texts. On Easter or Thanksgiving, we would have séances in which we would use the Ouija board. Paranormal was normal for us.”

Knight’s grandfather, Ralph Knight, was an editor and contributor to The Saturday Evening Post.  He was also a Transcendentalist and author of Learning to Talk to the World Beyond where he describes how to conduct a dialogue with deceased loved ones.  He hosted seances and had no trouble moving between the rational and the non-rational worlds.  

In 1984, Knight’s father died suddenly from a cerebral aneurysm.  Afterward, she made a series of oil paintings on wood panels—surreal landscapes inspired by her childhood in the Hudson River Valley.   The eye does not rest on the water or the trees, however, but on free-floating orbs of light that seem to hold the promise of a life to come.

 Curator Amy Smith-Stewart writes perceptively of the artist’s evolution at this point—describing “The Farmer” (below) with three planetary bodies — or souls — beaming down from a nocturnal sky filled with sparkling stars.  

“Is it Knight’s father? An alien spacecraft?” she asks,” A portal or conduit to other realms?  Inside her father’s book UFOs: A Pictorial History from Antiquity to the Present (1979) are dozens of grainy black-and-white images of unidentified flying objects caught all over the world. But one, in particular, captured the day after Christmas 1978 by a Mexico City newspaper photographer, bears a striking resemblance to Knight’s orbs and to a dream image that psychoanalyst Carl Jung described, as “a tiny ball at a great distance.”  

Karla Knight_The Farmer
Karla Knight, The Farmer, 1985, courtesy of the artist and Andrew Edlin Gallery

Though Knight has been working with these themes for more than four decades, her work has finally struck a chord.  Perhaps because we have lost so many people to a stealth pandemic, or because the uncertainty of this world has prompted us to consider what it will be like to wake up in the next. Either way, Knight shows us how to navigate these liminal spaces, with humor and a touch of grace.

Learn more about Knight’s inner world in this lively interview at the Westport, CT Public Library with The New Yorker cartoonist, Roz Chast.

Karla Knight is represented by the Andrew Edlin Gallery in NewYork. 

Valerie Andrews is the founding editor of Reinventing Home.  

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