"There’s something about painting outside, whether it’s the flies or the wind, it’s very much an emotional response. I can’t get excited about taking a photograph and painting inside. My van is set up as a mobile studio, capable of carrying wet paintings." An impressionist ‘plein-air’ painter, Ken’s work is charged with a freshness and spontaneity that cannot be created in a studio. Ken approaches the landscape with a contemporary boldness. His use of textural oils applied by swift palette knife gestures and energetic brush strokes are highly responsive to the scene in front of him. The result is a painting which offers something a little different each time it is viewed. Up close, his paintings are brilliantly abstract - a myriad of brushstrokes and edges of thick paint - but stand back a few paces and they resolve into a landscape of texture, mood, time and place which shifts slightly with each viewing."View all artworks by Ken Knight
FULL CIRCLE Ken Knight – Frontier – Artist Essay
Vantage and mobility are key to landscape tradition, and artist Ken Knight is in perpetual motion. Over four decades he has tracked through Australia and beyond honing the spontaneous discipline of plein air painting. For Knight, the process of complete physical immersion forms the core of his vision. The strong sense of immediacy in his work is built on the balance between structural rigour and gestural freedom. To watch him paint is to sometimes witness the scaffolding of a composition in reverse. He might start with a rock fissure or a ribbon of sky, before slashing in colours to signify the broader elements of ocean or earth. As his terrains and subjects are so diverse, the force uniting them is their horizon. His approach to perspective is not standardised. Ken Knight's paintings cleave the line between sea, land and the sky in almost tidal pattern. Some lie low to embrace the swollen monument of a mountain, others are high and buoyant enough to submerge the eye smack in the centre of the scenery.
The adventure of seeking new terrains and taking his gear with him in a mobile studio is central to understanding Ken Knight’s art. For this painter, the overwhelming sense of physical occupation within his subject is key. For the hours, days or weeks that he is capturing the scene, he is wholly there, fully consumed. It is, in his terms, an engagement with landscape that demands the joyous sum of all our faculties. “We don’t see the world as much as we perceive the world” and he asserts “ landscape can only be felt with all of the senses.” It is audial, haptic, perfumed, tremulous and mutable and as much as the finished painting may stand still, its genesis continues to dance.
For a long time, Ken Knight wanted to paint Antarctica. “The anticipation for this project was decades deep”. In terms of his palette the term ‘Polar Opposite’ is apt, as for these new works he compressed his range to white, blue and black. From this matrix he yielded a subtle variety- from turbulent frozen water to flinty misted sky and the void of snow. “ Usually, I travel off road for weeks on four wheels but this was a complete departure. The long voyage was on water and the destination was water. The ocean had crystal depths that forged a seamless bond between pale skies and the sea. Colours shifted constantly from turquoise to indigo and slate. In some ways the presence of snow was the one visual constant: I found myself going through a lot of white paint.”
Echoing the Arctic expeditions of a century ago, Knight set forth on this journey with a clear goal. He carried seventy-five panels with him on board with an intention to complete them all. The ship’s deck became his studio and at night the works were wedged in a special vertical drying rack in his cabin. The remote beauty of the Arctic circle fuelled momentum; twenty-nine works were completed on the first day alone. In the seven days he and his wife Louise were there, Knight went ashore only three times. His absorption was total. “It was a strange sleepless time, alive to the possibility of the next day’s painting. I would have painted day and night but there were not enough panels left for nocturnes.” A keen awareness of finite time fed the dynamic of the paintings as did the volatility of light and wind. Unlike Mont Sainte-Victoire for Cezanne or the Rouen Cathedral for Monet, these monuments were mutable not just because of wild weather, but also their uncertain ecological future.
“These paintings are naked in a way because the context of their creation was raw. The challenge of the landscape was that it was both maritime and mountainous and the conditions kept changing. A sheer cliff face soaring out of a sea of ice, was glittering in the sun one moment then obscured by a blur of wind and mist the next. The pale blue sky turned grey in a mercurial flash. You could start a painting in the clouds and by the time you had those colour values in place, it was sleeting!”
Knight began his week of painting in a tumult, and then gradually, a stronger sense of tranquillity took hold. The purity of Antarctica was shot through with fragility. Whales breached. And the silence formed a sheltering arc.
“This is a place that is elemental and hostile, merciless yet delicate. I felt like a very insignificant part of the landscape and had an overwhelming impression of the harmony of ecology before we overpopulated our planet. It was a deep sense of peace like dwelling inside a pocket of time removed from the world.”
Perhaps inspired by this sense of the infinite, the paintings in this series are expansive, almost aerial. Working with cardboard and a wide palette knife, Knight allowed himself a greater degree of abstraction. Descriptive details do not detract from the scale and ancient grandeur of sea and sculpted ice.
These meditative works possess a quiet plea. The primordial landscapes of the Antarctic are in flux. Its drama dwells in its vulnerability to the encroaching sun. If you draw an arc between these works and the watercolours of E.A.Wilson, the doctor and (unexpected) artist who joined the ‘Terra Nova’ expedition of 1910, you witness a century of radical and accelerated change. In his sketches Wilson captured the opalescent nocturnes and mystic glaciers with “giant slopes as smooth as glass”. Discovered in a tent after he and Scott’s small team perished, Wilson’s observations are poignant. One hundred years ago this was a polar Eden, today’s artist engages its extremes with a more knowing eye.
For Knight this remote and precious place inspires redemptive action rather than the requiem of a twilight. The paintings of Ken Knight are a celebration of earth’s most pristine reaches and a vital call for their preservation. Of all his works, this unique series might possess the most urgency, both in the way they were created and in the message that they share.
- Anna Johnson