In Dialogue at Conversations With Artists.com, August 2023
Kathryn A. Tuma, Much So Strangely Soft and Self-Illuminating: The Drawings of John King, Vicenza Arte exhibition essay, 2005
I was lured into the studio of New York City-based artist John King by surrealistic images created in undertones and scrupulously built into many layers of abstraction suspended between dream and reality. The artist has been working on them, intuitively and consistently, for more than 30 years. This art can be difficult to understand. Recognizable things like flowers, spikes of grass, shells, nuts, snowflakes, moths and wicks of candles invite us into a strange unearthly world. King's images are combinations of the imagination, visions, and something incomprehensible, something that cannot be explained in words. But, the artist told me about his art in very simple words.
King lives and works in Soho in a spacious studio that takes up the entire fifth floor in an old cast iron building with Corinthian columns. He has been living in his loft with his wife Nancy since 1980. The couple met several years earlier at Wayne State University in Detroit where King studied art. The couple has collected many artworks over the years, both purchases and trades with artist friends, and a selection of them hang throughout the space. King comes across like a university professor, a person of sophisticated and refined manners. He speaks convincingly and specifically, easily choosing the right and precise words.
It goes without saying that art plays a major role in the artist's life. However, King attracted my interest because of the two lives he is living. His other profession is gemology, the study of gemstones. It was by pure chance that he found this job. Having come to New York City in 1978 the artist started looking for work. While his friends did sporadic jobs in construction he wanted to find something more permanent. After searching for a while he came across an ad in the paper that said "work with diamonds--will train." It sounded interesting and he felt it might have some parallel to his interest in art. He went for an interview at the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) in New York's Diamond District on West 47th Street and the rest is history.
King's move to New York was prompted by his acceptance in Hunter College's Graduate Painting Program. Not long after he graduated he won several prestigious awards including a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship Grant. At the same time his interest in gemology was growing and, as it grew, his career advanced too. King continues to work for the same company and has headed many well known industry projects for them. He writes articles and edits books on gemology, gives lectures and travels worldwide to places such as Belgium, Great Britain, South Africa and Hong Kong. However, King says "if I could, I would spend even more time on my art." Meanwhile, many of King's subordinates are not even aware of King as a working artist. They know him as a boss and researcher, most notably of colored diamonds.
John was born in 1954 in a working class family. He inherited his work ethic from his father who worked in a steel shop. As far back as he can remember he was always inquisitive. This likely came from his mother, a housewife who was also an amateur artist and craftswoman. Growing up John remembers drawing and painting was always part of his life.
John acknowledges the importance of other art and refers to many different sources of inspiration. "I am interested in ephemeral work, work that has a holistic character," the artist explains. He mentions that, over the years, he has looked closely at Alberto Giacometti, Mark Rothko and Jasper Johns. But I feel that if I asked him the same question a week later, the answer could have been different. His quest continually expands and enriches. For example, his interests are not limited to painting and among his most vivid impressions are the performances of the German choreographer Pina Bausch's Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch. John believes any visual experience can influence an artist.
Aside from more contemporary artists Jan Vermeer's art has also had a strong impact. An exhibition of this Dutch artist took place at the National Gallery in Washington D.C. in 1995. King still thinks about it and speaks of it as an important event in his life. "I saw tranquility, mood, character, a quality of light... Such things do not pass without trace. They are very specific. But things of quality can be found, for example, in African masks, in paintings by Monet or at the nearest art exhibition inn Chelsea. I can be inspired and engage in dialogue over a number of different things. What I am looking for in art is poetry. A poetry that is unexplainable except through the thing itself." King says.
While always looking at other artists, John's work comes from a number of different sources that often emerge out of an inner dialogue. The artist draws and analyzes a lot but this does not always lead to the final images in a painting. His work, while appearing deliberate, can be very intuitive. Over time, King has come to use a number of different ways to find the images in his art. "I'm interested in those moments when you subconsciously start understanding what you are looking for. Sometimes it happens as you bring together different images -- and suddenly you find they have a dialogue. It can be a lengthy process and a quest. Sometimes you may start with a gesture, then you react to it which leads to another step and then another. Such actions are essentially an internal questioning -- what if I do this to it? An action can be a reaction to color, a line, a stroke, etc., and the work is created through this series of decisions. I try to keep myself from getting into a comfort zone where I know what to do next," King says, as he talks about one of his paintings.
Images populating King's paintings are mysterious, layered, encoded, encrypted and evoke many meanings. The names of these paintings (Revival, Outer Dark, January Hum, Night's Gambit, Ballad of Dependency, Desire and Compatibility) often prompt new unexpected associations. Where does the artist draw his subjects and images from -- from art, from literature, or from dreams? "I often start with common objects we find around us but then I find I often end up manipulating them. It is the play of imagination which separates common objects from their direct representation. This is how new images and shapes emerge. I don't think my ideas come from dreams. Rather, it is a conscious play of imagination. This is what distinguishes my work from the most common interpretation of surrealism," King explains.
Critics have referred to writers like Beckett and Sartre when talking about King's work. They liken it to offering short moments of truth in a senseless world, a world leading to nowhere or to death. Such attitudes can sometimes be seen in King's work and they may be the result of the compromises he has made in order to create his art. He lives in two different worlds of his work and his art. He is successful in both to various degrees, but the fact that there are two worlds rather than one introduces many complexities in the artist's life and keeps forcing him to make his choice over and over again.
Or, maybe there is no conflict in King's life. His work and his art have long followed parallel paths that rarely cross. Does he need to break this cycle? He has gone a long way in both worlds already and has developed habits in each that have become part of his life. And, there is a need to be able to move away from art making once in a while in order to see it fresh. Then, perhaps, King's job is his escape. In his paintings he asks the questions of a man who is half in the real world and half in the world he wishes to be. Maybe there is no physical road to that world and only King's imagination can get there. In his work perspective is often missing as well as the road into the metaphysical landscape imagined by the artist.
On the other hand, there is a feeling of the real in King's paintings and drawings and it is no wonder that he has, on occasion, made sculpture. Years ago he made a series of wood sculptures that looked as if they were about to lose their balance and fall. The sense of balance, of inner tension, of moving on the very edge are always present in his artworks. Compositions may seem calm and relaxed at first while, in reality, there is always the expectation of something unforeseen or even dangerous. Sometimes it can take months to create a piece; other times it may be a few days. He often works on several pieces at the same time letting images roam from painting to painting.
I ask the artist "If your paintings could be expressed in another form, might they be a landscape, feel like a city, a labyrinth, a building?" The artist replies that the feel in his work is that of interiors. They are open to space but it is a room, human and meditative in scale.
King's paintings are notable for the technique he uses. They are encaustic which is made with hot beeswax, resin and powdered pigments. He has used this media since college. This method was known to the ancient Egyptians, Romans and Christian icon painters. The ingredients are heated on a palette until melted and then mixed together. King applies the paint with a brush, layer by layer, or pours it directly over the wood support he uses. He sometimes re-works the surface by re-heating with a heat lamp and scraping away layers of wax. The wax is a rich, varied media. It can be applied very thinly or built up in many layers. It can be translucent or opaque depending on the amount of pigment added to it.
When asked if he considers his paintings to be beautiful, he replies he is interested in the idea of beauty but this isn't a main goal. King believes that integrity to the idea makes a work beautiful, not just the visual affect. Knowing King's professional affection for colored diamonds and his reputation for his work in this area leads one to wonder why there are no bright colors in the artist's work. He creates what he feels and, for now, if subdued colors come from his brush, then that is what his world is like and should be.
Among the pictures exhibited in the artist's studio my attention was drawn to a large collage painting titled My Rain. On its right side, under layers of wax, is a drawing of a map of Antwerp, a Belgian port city and a world center of diamond manufacturing and trading. To the left barely visible images emerge through the surface of frozen translucent wax. They are almost hidden. The poured wax covering these images reminds one of drops of rain on a window pane. They seem to be flowing down like tears right in front of our eyes. It is about to stop raining, the clouds will clear, the sun will come out and a fairytale city will appear. But it keeps raining. Large drops of rain do not let us see anything and there is only anticipation and hope.
For many years King's work has been exhibited in museums and galleries in the USA and Italy. The Brooklyn Museum, the Library of Congress and university museums such as Harvard and Yale have his work in their collections. When I met King, his solo exhibition at the Santa Barbara City College's Atkinson Gallery, in Santa Barbara, California had just opened. In conjunction with the exhibition, Mr. King spoke about his art and his painting technique at the college.
The paintings and drawings presented at this exhibition are milestones of his creative work. They fill the beautiful gallery with its view of the ocean and mountains. In the studio King excitedly showed me a hand-made model of the gallery in Santa Barbara with scale models of the paintings on the walls. He was impatient to see the work in the gallery space. John King's two lives follow parallel roads. Each day King deals with the unrivaled beauty of rare diamonds that only the chosen few will see. At the same time, the artist communicates his feelings of unique character and beauty through wax paint.
Vladimir Belogolovsky, Beeswax Rain of Artist John King
Tatlin News, 2008