THE AND THE GALLERIST
Jasper Knight talks about his unusual mix of talents, and of his old friend Adam Cullen, writes Alex Speed
JASPER Knight sits in his studio in Surry Hills in Sydney and remembers Adam Cullen. One of Australia’s most visceral painters, Cullen died in July after a long illness. Along with Jeffrey Smart and Howard Arkley, he was one of Knight’s artistic heroes — his last exhibition was held at Knight’s Gallery Ecosse in Exeter, NSW, in December.
The day after our interview, Knight will fly to Singapore. Last-minute tweaking is required at his new gallery, Future Perfect, which will show Cullen’s final body of work. It will be Cullen’s first exhibition in Asia.
Knight is a young, figurative painter and sculptor with a burgeoning profile and reputation. Still only 33, he has been a finalist in the Archibald and Wynne prizes on numerous occasions. Something of a rarity among his fellow artists, Knight also owns and co-directs three galleries — two in NSW and his new venture in Singapore.
‘‘ It is a tribute of sorts, but not really because it was organised months ago. Adam had said he would crawl over broken glass to do the show — he was that passionate about it. We had always planned he would be at the soft opening [in August] before the official opening in September. He was often too ill recently to do the 10 paintings and 10 drawings [required for the show] so we had to dip into paintings from his last show at Ecosse. With his blessing we also acquired some new works, and he was impressed we were getting major pieces. He had, of course, been very ill for a long time now but regardless of whether he was bedridden at the time he would phone and go, ‘ now when we go up to Alice Springs or wherever . . .’. You were just like, ‘ as if you are travelling anywhere’. But this was the first time he was like: ‘ I don’t think I can make this one.’ That’s when we knew he was really sick.’’
Knight met Cullen in 2005. Winner of the Archibald in 2000 for his portrait of actor David Wenham, Cullen had already won attention for his paintings of the seamier side of life. His personal folklore consisted of tales of butchered pig heads and vodka-fuelled painting binges.
Knight had just been successful in an art competition. ‘‘ He came up to me and said: ‘ So you won some money? Go and buy some art materials tomorrow — spend it all tomorrow before it’s gone.’ And even though I didn’t, I did think: ‘ Now there’s a man with some knowledge.’ He was a handsome Irish bastard who was as intelligent as he was thoughtful but could also be very aggressive in a lot of respects, and very opinionated, and would just say outrageous things, which you never really knew whether he meant or not.
‘‘ Our friendship crescendoed to him spending time here in the last few years of his life. He painted sometimes here and I painted in his studio and we even did some paintings together, which, of course, Adam then said were shit and repainted, but hey that was Adam. He lived hard, died young and left a good-looking corpse, depending on your definition of good-looking.’’ Knight laughs. It appears Cullen would have enjoyed that quip.
Hirsute and greying, Knight is nonetheless boyish and has the look of a crack video-game designer. He is erudite and direct, and would seemingly be as at home talking street art with street artist Kill Pixie, aka Mark Whalen, as discussing the Renaissance with Smart. Knight painted Smart for his entry in this year’s Archibald. Unlike his five previous entries, he failed to make the hang. He did, however, also enter Smart’s portrait in the Doug Moran prize and was a finalist.
Knight has a reputation for getting things done. ‘‘ I have shown 150 artists across four countries for a decade, and I’ve never not had a show on. There’s always something happening that I have produced or had a hand in, and it’s what I really love doing. At the start of your career you don’t realise that it’s a job because you’re not making any money, and then with time people start going, ‘ I like what he is doing’, and now we have people wanting to help us fund projects because they believe in us and that’s really nice.’’
Knight’s CV as an artist lists nearly 30 solo shows in the past nine years including in London, Singapore, Manila, Antwerp and Hong Kong. His work is held in collections at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, the Australian consulates in Singapore and Manila, and by large bodies such as Sydney Port Authority. He is also a fully fledged gallerist, running Gallery Ecosse with curators Andre and Nina de Borde. Opened in 2010, it shows contemporary artists of the calibre of Wendy Sharpe and Luke Sciberras. Chalk Horse gallery, which is effectively the loading dock attached to his warehouse studio, was started in 2007 with friends and artists Oliver Watts, Julian Meagher and Dougal Phillips. It showcases emerging Australian talent.
‘‘ No one wanted to show me when I was starting out and I didn’t have a space for a show, so I began to show at lots of spaces. And then I got offered dealers I didn’t like so I thought: ‘ Well I’ll start my own gallery.’ I showed myself for about six years and now I show at Australian Galleries and it’s just the way I’ve always done things. I’ve been a selfstarter in that respect. Not having to rely on other people gives you a lot of freedom and a lot of pride in what you do.’’
An exhibition by video artist Christian Thompson, a Chalk Horse talent, will open Future Perfect. Knight’s first overseas gallery, it is located in Gillman Barracks, 80-year-old former military premises. The venture was developed as part of a Singaporean government arts initiative and Knight was invited to take part. It is the only Australian gallery onsite and aims to show important Southeast Asian, Australian and European artists.
‘‘ It’s not made for me, this gallery: it’s for much more famous artists in terms of world standing, but it goes to highlight that even bigname artists in Australia don’t show enough overseas. A very good example of this is Adam Cullen. It just seems so logical to me — I don’t know why you wouldn’t want to show all around the world to as big an audience as possible.’’
is a whirr
of people and
Jasper Knight in his Surry Hills studio