Melanie Flood Projects in Downtown Portland currently plays host to a show of paintings by New York City-based artist Rosalie Knox that engage nail polish, alongside other materials, as a medium for cosmic abstraction. The exhibition, titled “Rosalie Knox: Conversation with the Last Unicorn,” draws on Knox’s affinity for nail polish as well as her personal history living and working in NYC’s East Village. Gallerist Melanie Flood shared with me that Knox offered manicures to guests at the exhibition’s opening, a performative gesture that hooks into both the pleasure and politics of this body of work.
Flood described Knox as one of those “secret people.” I understood what she meant. When I first began searching for information about Knox online, I could find little information but an Instagram of someone named @knox.rosalie. This profile seemed fairly personal, featuring memes, photos of colorful bottles of nail polish, and some shots from a party, #thelastunicorn at the Pyramid Club. Was this mysterious person the Rosalie Knox that I had been searching for?
As it turns out, I had found her!
Chart—the NYC gallery that partnered with Melanie Flood Projects as the other half of this two-venue showcase of Knox’s newest work—offered some context that helped me connect the dots between Knox’s creative work and the fragments of her personal life I had uncovered.
The accumulation of lore surrounding Knox’s participation in the crossover between the club and art worlds finds itself in keeping with other artists who have hailed from the East Village, such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. As the story goes, Knox received her BFA from The Cooper Union in 1995. During her time as a student, she began exploring the impacts of consumer culture on contemporary art. She started painting people’s nails while working at the gallery American Fine Arts Co., and she eventually created her own portable nail salon as a kind of socially-engaged creative practice. While she was never a career nail tech, she engaged with it socially by holding black light nail painting performances at the Pyramid Club.
According to Knox, “working with nail polish was a sublimation of my urge to paint.” Her paintings as Melanie Flood Projects employ nail polish as a medium along with acrylics and polyurethanes on linen canvases. They brim with energizing color—which spans almost every hue—painted on in drips, swirls, and swaths. While Knox’s painting style appears to be in the lineage of Jackson Pollock’s “drip technique,” her works do not operate at the large-scale that Pollock’s is often known for. Instead, they are small to mid-sized and very vivid, like satellite photos of the cosmos. They possess a gravitational quality that draws me closer to them and calls me to question the nature of their materiality.
In Knox’s work Polka, dots of and splashes of many colors intermingle together in a vibrant dance of paint. To the right, it seems as though a bright green fish with one googly eye is peeking out from beneath the composition. This shy swimmer is the only form in the show that dares me to name it as representational. The rest of Knox’s paintings depict an abstracted array of color and texture that defies legibility. I sense my urge to track the interplay of various mediums, and this mental process is compounded when I run a handheld UV light furnished by the gallery over them (in an apparent homage to Knox’s nail painting at the Pyramid Club). The colors pop and deepen under the ultraviolet waves, stimulating my synapses.
A noteworthy attribute of many of Knox’s paintings is her counterintuitive use of sheen. In some places, glittery paint has been partially obscured with drops and drizzles of flatter color. Pure Perfume is a standout, featuring loosely woven neon linen as its base for textural confusion. In Princess Crown and other works, deeper layers of paint have cracked like ice on the street, while surface layers of silvery pigment have settled into these crevices. In Party Girl, drips of neon green and yellow paint are blended in gradation with deeper hues of red, purple, and black. These wobbly drips all cascade in the same direction toward the bottom edge of the frame. Their shared directionality begets personality, so much so that the painting almost has the tenor of a drooping facial expression.
Knox’s playful painting style catches my eyes and piques my curiosity. She has crafted each of these works with clear intentionality. Her overarching hand as artist is apparent, but each of the works has its own flavor and iterative quality—the evidence of a painting process with deliberately uncertain outcomes.
While contemplating Knox’s stimulating paintings, I thought back to a conversation I had with a fellow artist, Emily Jones: Jones remarked that they had noticed a refrain in popular discourse—rest as antidote to capitalism. They went on to note that “rest” (in the most literal sense) might not be a comprehensive remedy to capitalist expectations because human brains tend to crave stimulation. In turn, Knox’s paintings made me wonder if self-direction—the opportunity to trust and follow one’s own fancy in the face of overstimulation—could be another source of reprieve under capitalism. Knox’s compositions seem to embody this very principle by denying me a coherent focal point and, instead, offering me an array of scintillating details to navigate on my own terms.
There is no “Last Unicorn” waiting to be found amidst the galactic throes of Knox’s paintings. There is no hyperintellectual concept demanding to be excavated from this body of new work. Knox’s paintings are informed by her socially-engaged practice with nail polish—but they also offer a strategy for finding sensory delight in a society obsessed with extraction. Her layered mediums are untraceable, yet they stimulate enjoyment and offer respite from all that is familiar by asking me to trace them.
“Rosalie Knox: Conversation with the last Unicorn” will be open through Saturday March 12 at Melanie Flood Projects. The gallery is located at 420 SW Washington St., #310 (above Kelly’s Olympian). It is open Friday and Saturday from 11:00-4:00 or by private appointment.