LUST FOR LIFE: Brooke Lewis

Distorted faces leer from a chaos of intricate backgrounds – the world around them is going crazy and they don’t give a damn. Eyes pop and mouths twist into grins as they lure viewers into a tangled world of monsters, mavericks, and tridents.

Monkey With a Blowtorch

“I’m interested in dichotomy – things that are contradictory and things that are not rational. I think these sorts of things thrive in all of us and we try to either ignore them or avoid them,” he says.

His surrealist work is a riot of juxtapositions. Chaos, excess, and depravity are tempered by a sense of humour and transformation; stark black-and-white is punctuated with flashes of brilliant colour; a sense of reckless freedom is balanced by the delicacy and controlled craftsmanship of his intensely detailed pictures.

Knudsen himself is a contradictory character. His quiet seriousness is frequently interrupted by an abrupt chuckle. Deep laugh-lines escape from the edges of big dark shades. He sips soy cappuccinos as he talks about his art and the drugs and wild years of his past.

“I guess I’ve always been attracted to the seamier side of life,” he says, “it is darker and more mysterious and the people are often highly intelligent and have kind of drifted away from what we see as normal life to some kind of subterranean place. There are always fascinating stories and never a dull moment. But it’s not for everybody, you’ve really gotta have the stomach for it.”

The artist aims to explore and embrace all aspects of life, including the parts that we usually try to suppress or ignore. “The most common response to my work is that it’s very dark and that’s quite a surprise to me because I don’t think it’s dark,” he says. He wonders if people describe his work as dark because they find it threatening but counters, “The definition of dark doesn’t have to be that it’s a harmful or hurtful thing.” Indeed, there is a kind of crazed joy in his depiction of what he tenderly describes as “my motley assortment of mavericks, losers, outsiders, and freaks”.

Much of Knudsen’s work is autobiographical and he often draws on the 20 years he spent as a London-based musician, touring with rock and punk bands in the UK, America, and Europe.

“I took a lot of drugs,” he says. “I got into a few hairy situations, but I’m here to tell the story.” That story, in all its gritty glory, is told through his art. “It’s like that stuff is feeding my work, it’s a source of nutrition for it, a perverse kind of nutrition.”

Rolfe Knudsen

He believes that disordering the senses can help us to see beyond our ingrained concepts, notions, and beliefs. “There’s something revelatory about being in that state of mind, it does expand your consciousness, you are aware of more things and deeper things.”

The exploration and reflection of these perceptions in his art is also cathartic. “That’s why there’s a lot of weird stuff in my drawings; it’s just stuff that comes out, you know, often without any predetermination at all.”

“Normally I have a really basic plan or an idea for an image and then it often warps into something that, you know, just kind of draws itself.” He laughs and adds, “My arm is just guiding this kind of thing that’s coming out of me.”

Knudsen enjoys the drama of black-and-white and often works in ink and charcoal, but recently he has been painting more. “I love the way colour works together. And that’s been liberating because I can have a few beers and I can really just go at it and it’s a physical thing,” he says, leaning forward in his chair and making wild painting motions in the air with both arms. “I really enjoy just splashing paint onto a canvas and it’s even more psychotic and a bit free-form… and you just start with no idea at all and something comes out of nothing – something grows, and it’s just fantastic.”

Studio A lot of the artist’s work is crafted using a time-consuming fine-link ink technique and his pictures can take weeks to complete. He works at home, listening to music for inspiration. Tom Waits is a current favourite. “It’s kinda like some sort of sick carnival music,” he says. “This guy sitting at this broken-down piano, singing these creepy songs and his lyrics are just incredible. His songs are just full of imagery.”

Other influences include a line-up of characters as motley as those in his pictures: Jean-Michel Basquiat, Albert Tucker, Brett Whitely, Reg Mombassa, Hunter S Thompson, Charles Bukowski, and Jean-Paul Sartre.

Many of these artists struggled with addiction and Knudsen says, “In a way it has benefited their work and often the best work they’ve done is when they’ve been at their lowest ebb.” He sees a correlation between this and his own work and he adds, “The poison we feed ourselves often nurtures us.”