Grisaille: Shades of Grey from the Collection

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Who was Warren Knight? Details of his life are scant. We know that he was born in Minneapolis in 1941 and migrated to Australia in the late 1960s. He was most active in the 1970s – both the National Gallery of Australia and the National Gallery of Victoria collected works of this decade. He remains though, inexplicably forgotten.

When Tobias Spitzer from Newcastle Art Gallery came across a large painting by Knight with the “mysterious title” Do-to kal 1969 its greyish tones became the starting point for the curatorial project Grisaille: Shades of Grey from the Collection.

The painting, says Spitzer, is an “abstract work with lively textured surface and a script-like layer.”

At the time it was donated to the gallery by artist and gallery owner Lucy Swanton, the painting became a favourite of the director.

“The work was originally shown at Watters Gallery in Sydney (1970), however, the artist also exhibited with Pinacotheca (1969) and Tolarno (1970) in Melbourne. The inclusion in Harald Szeemann’s important exhibition in 1971 also documents that the artist was highly regarded.”

Spitzer was astonished to see how many works were in greyscale once he started looking through the collection. Grisaille includes works by John Brack, James Gleeson, Frank Hinder, Ildiko Kovacs, Bea Maddock, Claire Martine Lindy Lee, John Firth-Smith, Mike Parr and Fred Williams.

While grisaille is a painstaking technique of underpainting in oil, here the colour is used in its own right.

Grey elicits contradictory responses – considered by some as moody, and emotionless by others, it appears elegant in black and white photography or dreary when veiling the sky.

In the Herder Dictionary of Symbols, grey is the colour of intermediate realms, of spirits, and the colour of resurrection of the dead. We might not know where Warren Knight is but it’s fitting that his work inspired this exhibition.

Varia Karipoff