Nick Knight creates, arguably, some of the most beautiful images of flowers in contemporary art. Lush, exquisitely composed, delicately coloured, they rank with Robert Mapplethorpe’s phallic stamens and Irving Penn’s ethereally floating poppies as amongst the most exquisite committed to print. Or indeed to canvas – who’s to say a Penn or a Knight isn’t as good as a Dutch Master? But anyway.
Knight’s flowers, however, are different to those of his predecessors; they belong inherently to the digital age, a series of images Knight has been not promoting but actually creating through social media for the past six years. On June 24 he will open an ambitious show, featuring these, at Michael Hue-William’s Albion Barn, his first major still-life exhibition in the United Kingdom. Albion Barn is in the sleepy parish of Little Milton in Oxfordshire, an unlikely locale for a major gallery. Knight was attracted to them for the calibre of their other artists – past exhibitions have included the work of James Turrell, Richard Long and Joana Vasconcelos – and because the gallery has an adjacent rose garden. Which seemed perfect.
All these images – 24 in total, of many produced – were taken on Knight’s iPhone and processed through Instagram, the original “gallery” for their display where he captions them, innocuously, “Roses From My Garden”. Each takes around four or five hours, photographed in natural daylight on the kitchen table in Knight’s David Chipperfield-designed house, with a whole back wall of glass affording ideal studio conditions. He works alone, very differently to his fashion shoots, where Knight will be surrounded by an entourage of assistants, as well as hair, make-up, stylists and model. “Normally I am very excited to work with people, in a team, but these are just solitary studies for me,” he says. “I try to do it every weekend. It’s meditative.”
Knight began to shoot roses in the early 1990s, when he spent three and a half years photographing selections from the Natural History Museum’s herbarium, its library of pressed flowers. He chose the selection himself from more than six million specimens; it included a rose – his first photograph of one. He also subsequently photographed roses for Lancôme advertising campaigns (the beauty company’s emblem is a rose). He had a rose tattooed on one shoulder when he was younger (“I couldn’t draw what I wanted to have, so I asked for a rose”). His mother’s middle name was Rose. And when we meet, he’s wearing a pair of Murano glass cufflinks in the shape of roses, created by Carlo Brandelli (an old friend) when creative director of Kilgour especially for Knight. “Tenuous links!” Knight himself says.
But the lush images Knight creates have powerful links with centuries of imagery, by Renoir and Redoute, as well as various cultural stimuli: romance, death, and the potent symbolism of the flower, especially in an England shaped by the War of the Roses and entwined by the rambling sort as immortalised in everything from Merchant Ivory to Midsomer Murders.
These roses, though, are resolutely modern. The images for the exhibition come in two sizes: big, and bigger. 13 are around 50 by 50 centimetres, 11 even larger, in excess of 150 centimetre square – in order to permit reproduction at such a scale, each is fed through a new form of AI (only six months on the market) which, according to Knight, “pulls from millions of images of roses,” to fill in the gaps and increase the resolution. It leads to a slightly unreal, surreal look to the images, moments of hyper-reality, others of too-perfect CGI. “If you look closely, you can see weird, slightly glitchy things,” Knight says, stroking a text-print of a yellow rose pinned up in his central London studio. “When you get close, the texture is quite new. If you were looking at an old master, you’d get brushstrokes. If you were looking at a photograph you’d get grain. This is a new thing, a new visual language.”
Knight has exhibited some of these rose images before, in a show in Japan; they were small, printed on glass slides, alongside images from Flora and some of what he calls “photo-paintings”, which are trippy, drippy images of roses which originated from a happy accident, of inserting photographic paper upside-down in the printer which meant the paper did not absorb the ink, leaving it liquid and malleable on the surface. Knight has been experimenting with it ever since, shifting he paper around and ‘painting’ with the photographic ink. Four of these will be on display at Albion Barn also, alongside the 24 Instagram-originating photographs. They’re evidence of Knight’s relentless search for newness, a new kind of beauty in image making – even in roses, the oldest beauty trick in the book. Knight doesn’t want anything to look too simple, too easy, too pretty. His flowers stop short of Mapplethorpe’s “New York” blooms – gritty, aggressive, stridently turgid or flaccidly spent – but nevertheless, they have an edge. His CGI roses have razor-sharp petals; his photo-paintings drip viscerally, almost corporeally. “Nature can be brutal,” he states. “Nature’s very tough. Roses have thorns.”
Nick Knight: Roses will run at Albion Barn, Oxfordshire, from June 24 to September 22, 2019.