Process and Ritual: Silke Otto-Knapp’s “In the waiting room”


I first encountered the Renaissance Society exhibition space by accident, nestled on the third floor of Cobb Hall, one of the University of Chicago’s most unassuming academic buildings. When I was a student there, I first came upon the bright, high-ceilinged room on my way to class and was surprised to discover that it existed. Now, returning a few years later for Silke Otto-Knapp’s “In the waiting room” and climbing those familiar stairs, I was excited to step into that unexpected space once again.

“In the waiting room” is a series of black and white paintings mostly hung on temporary, exposed wood walls. A freestanding five-panel screen, Screen (Trees and Moon), is the first piece you encounter. Each piece has been given a lot of space to stand alone; it seems that they are not meant to be seen in direct relation to one another. Their organization splits the viewer’s eye, and so I approached them one by one, circling them and weaving between them, almost expecting their backs to reveal something too.



They are all paintings, but the process of creation is well obscured. The gallery statement describes a technique that is water-based and heavily layered, yet the paintings almost appear to be dusted on, the whites gauzily transparent and the blacks failing to fully obscure. About halfway through my visit, I found watery glimpses of the artist’s technique: first, on two of the paintings, faded water marks on the black background. Though they had taken on the chalky texture of the work, they read unmistakably as the remains of some small splash, evidence of the layering process I had been promised. Later, as I followed the canvas of the freestanding screen around to its back, where the canvas had been methodically stapled to the wood supporting it, I found a series of small diluted splatters that felt loose and free. Rewarded by the ability to spot some evidence of Knapp’s making, I pulled back from the paintings and began to consider them on a formal level instead.

They are hazy portraits of solid colored figures that read as shadows or silhouettes, or sometimes as people. Though most of the figures exist in empty spaces, some are woven into organically patterned seasonal imagery, branching trees or flat, blooming flowers. Only one of the paintings, the standing screen, sheds the figures entirely; in doing so, it evokes decorative ceramic art, recalling the dramatic black and white surface design of Mata Ortiz and native Mexican pottery. It also feels more functional than the other pieces, dividing the room in a way that the others cannot do without their walls.


Even when posed in positions that clearly imply motion, the figures in In the waiting room (9) and In the waiting room (7) feel deeply rooted to the undefined space where they stand. They exist as individuals and are mostly solitary, overlapping with others only slightly and superficially. They seem deeply focused on themselves—their bodies—and so detached from each other despite occupying the same space. Other figures, particularly in Group (moving) and Group (reaching), participate in crowds. Their implied movement is not just choreographed, but rehearsed and collective. Their bodies blend together, but up close, they remain separated by line work in charcoals and grays, faint and delicate. The crowds seem completely feminine, and in this way, softer and lighter—but they’re more monstrous too. From a distance, they are a conglomeration of limbs, less restrained than the separated figures.


My favorite piece, Forest, faced completely away from the rest of the room; it combines pattern and landscape with figures posed in a kind of habitual action. They’re at home in these paintings, locked in familiar, ordered tracks. The piece is spread across six sections that suggest the passage of time and the blossoming of new things. It is ritualistic; it depicts a preordained kind of process, and it loses much of the stiffness of the other figures. In the fifth panel, a man sits and bows towards the viewer; the perfect mid-toned gray of his head is a penetrating glimpse into the world of the painting, one that is denied in almost every other piece. He’s vulnerable to the viewer here in a pose so intimate and self-contained amid the relative grandness of the natural background that I felt lucky to be seeing him, privy to his moment of reflection.

In the end, the installation space itself was something that lingered in my mind. Each painting is so solitary. It’s a stand-offish arrangement. I could never see them all at once. It was possible to arrange myself so that I only saw the unadorned wood of the temporary walls and none of the paintings themselves. As I moved among these frozen figures, I wondered if they had been placed this way because they needed asylum from my gaze, if they craved a time without looking—were given a reprieve as I turned away. I thought of myself in a waiting room with them, anticipating a movement or an intimation that would never come.


Madison Moore


Madison Moore is a Chicago-based artist, writer, and children’s book editor. She is a recent graduate from the University of Chicago and can be found online at

Silke Otto-Knapp, "In the waiting room," Screen (Trees and Moon), 2019, watercolor on canvas, 5 panels, overall: 96" x 160" x 3/4". Installation view at the Renaissance Society, 2020. Photo: Useful Art Services.

Silke Otto-Knapp, "In the waiting room," Forest, 2019, watercolor on canvas, 3 panels, overall: 59 1/8" x 118 1/8" x 3/4". Installation view at the Renaissance Society, 2020. Photo: Useful Art Services.

Silke Otto-Knapp, "In the waiting room," In the waiting room (9), 2019, watercolor on canvas, 4 panels, overall: 59 1/8" x 157 1/2" x 3/4". Installation view at the Renaissance Society, 2020. Photo: Useful Art Services.

Silke Otto-Knapp, "In the waiting room," In the waiting room (7), 2019, Watercolor on canvas, 3 panels, overall: 59 1/8 x 118 1/8 x 3/4 inches. Installation view at the Renaissance Society, 2020. Photo: Useful Art Services.



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