Jasper Knight talks about his un­usual mix of tal­ents, and of his old friend Adam Cullen, writes Alex Speed

The Weekend Australian - Review - - In Profile -

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.’’

Knight’s stu­dio

is a whirr

of peo­ple and

Jasper Knight in his Surry Hills stu­dio

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