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
The Amplitude of Twilight
The Art of John King
Infinite emptiness will be all around you,...and there you'll be like a little bit of grit in the middle of the steppe.
-- Samuel Beckett, Endgame
There is an amplitude to twilight. There is a layering of the dusk. It falls, scrim upon scrim, compounding into an infinity of passages. It opens as it densifies, fanning out to a maze of wayfaring, a labyrinth of unwalled corridors that branch and tendril the tremulous, fathomless borderlands of the imagination, that lead continually to enclaves of mists, each situated at the center of an infinite emptiness. The world of half-lights whispers in gauzes, it suggests in the soft textures of hazes and gathers like a breath on a window pane -- momentary glazes that hinge to the mind and hold within them the most secret of hopes and the most recurrent of fears.
In the encaustic works of John M. King, the twilight of the imagination gathers to the paper like frost to the window pane. In these works, King combines and develops the media of drawing and the waxy drench of encaustic like no other artist I have seen. He begins them by sketching in pencil on tinted papers, rendering strange images by the direction of impulse, through a free drift of imagination. In his smaller works, King then attaches a drawing on a Masonite panel which he covers with encaustic, sometimes overlaying translucent color, sometimes laying on the pure encaustic wax untinted. Always the result is an augmentation of the hue of the paper, producing dense tones of greys, olives, blues, violets, or yellows -- muted colors that are much like minor keys in music. In his larger works, King affixes a drawing to a small area of a plywood panel and applies short, vigorous strokes of similar dulled and muted hues: brimming and mottled flashes of thick greys, yellows, and blues that seem to team intricately and worm their way riotously across the panel.
The heavy and waxy impasto of paled, largely secondary colors creates the impression of a half-lit world, an evening of the inner vision imbued with a crepuscular glow, a dusk of the depths of the mind lit in owllight, into which emerge inklings of things only half suspected. Within these clouds of waxen atmosphere, within this density of the very air of thought, the images of the drawings seem to hover and condense. They float there, as if caught in suspension, in an aura like a miasma, as if each image were the sort of odd thought that arises between thoughts, the suspicion that drifts up of its own with a slight and febrile headiness, with a flash and a touch of thrill to the veins -- the unexpected thought that swims the mind.
The longer one contemplates the dense and tinged encaustic surfaces, the more invasive their atmosphere becomes. But it is the images of the drawings that commit the fantasy. King's images, the product of his free play of fantasy, are anomalous and unfamiliar configurations of thoroughly familiar objects: landscapes, plants, spores, furniture -- aspects of the ordinary made extraordinary and untoward. They appear odd and altered and somehow unearthly, somehow unnatural -- corridors sitting on a plane and leading nowhere, plant-like growths of strangely regularized form, floating objects seemingly of nature and seemingly not.
Yet, for all their oddity, unearthly is what they aren't. The artist's images are natural and of human-made objects that have been smoothed to the regularity of geometric forms, to the purity of rectangles, spheres, and conic sections. As such, his images become objects of intrigue, meditative objects that are arcana: visions that spin the mind, that tease and pull the imagination into them. And they do so because geometry is the essential Arcanum. It is the principle of harmony in the natural world, the order that underlies the chaotic profusion of natural forms and the bristling wealth of human motives and acts. It is the music of the spheres, the song of the universe. And it is as natural, as earthly, and as thick with enigma, as air.
The intersection of geometry and nature -- both the nature of the world and human nature -- can be seen in all of King's images. In Adige, titled for the river that runs by Verona, Italy, doughy islands that appear to be perfectly circular are ridged with mountains set in straight lines, between which run rivers that empty into a vast sea. They lie beneath tempests of quietly coagulating encaustic which weaves like rushes interlacing in the breeze. It seems a fairyland seen from high above, a place where one would encounter doings dense with secret meanings and be nourished on stories studded with instructive morals. In Slip, a pyramidic construction sits near a disembodied corner. It has rounded points and smooth sides that seem to flow into each other. It might have been grown, it may have been built -- it may be architecture, or a strange forest discovery, or a schematic of a molecule. The object seems unaccountable and beckoning. It is as unlike nature and architecture as it is like them, and it is impossible to turn from.
However, it is in the large painting titled Beckett that King makes most clear his tone and tenor, his atmosphere and its implications. By naming it for the Samuel Beckett, King acknowledges his artistic relative. The painting displays a chair sitting in a limitless plane. Before it, there is a hole in the floor. Behind it, there is another hole, from which rises a pair of white rings -- inexplicable objects emerging into an inexplicable place. The drawn image seems to lie in a small, square sea of calm, surrounded by a chaos of strokes of paint that have been worked into a sticky conflagration, into a molasses of paled multi-colored flames, or a fury of dimming light cataracting from the air. The chair is a point of pointless repose set in the midst of a meaningless and threatening flurry of undenoting hues, a tentative shelter against a feral and surrounding nothingness, like Beckett's typical brief moments of order in the senseless world, a world that leads to nothing but death.
It is a small thing, this chair in the middle of an infinite emptiness of brutal chaos and silence, small like all of King's images of strange objects. But King's art is one that recognizes the enormities that exist in small things -- the ecstasies and horrors, the ennoblements and humiliations, in the humblest of events: in the fall of light as softly as the cotton touch of settling dust on a window sill, in the soundless rise of a skeletal pyramid, in the levitating lift of a hoped-for halo. There are implications of the dire in the smallest of moments and the quietest of details. To find and know the great in the little is to possess the poetic faculty, and this is the capability that King owns. He implies by renditions, by the pregnancy of the moment, by the fullness of the inflection, captured in the inordinate conceptions of his images and the twilight tones of his colors. King conveys the enigmatic possibilities of existence and sustenance in the midst of the void. His is an art of life retained in the small details, an art of monumental indications, located and housed in the minutiae of fantasy.
Mark Daniel Cohen
Mark Daniel Cohen, The Amplitude of Twilight
The Art of John King, Exhibition catalog essay, 2000