Brooklyn Rail, March 2011

Profile: John McDevitt King

Looking at the work of John McDevitt King, the word perfection—or some attempt to achieve it—stubbornly recurs. In the graphite fields of shading that precisely describe volume and light, and yet retain the warmth of the human touch. In a familiar object that, upon inspection, morphs into something strange—a vivid conceit of imagination convincingly rendered according to the known laws of physics. Perhaps a better term would be alien perfection.

Take, for example, the drawing “From There to Here” (2009). The main object, a sphere, intersects a brilliant corona of light, in front of a pitch dark wedge—a planet, a lunar eclipse, or a wind-eroded boulder? Atop that imagery are small marks—two squares wittily suspended on a fulcrum, one with tiny, brightly-colored graph bars, plus orange dots that signify some electro-mechanical presence, and vertical scratches akin to a mnemonic device. It's indeterminate whether these marks float in another dimension, or whether they're reflections. The scene feels like it should be identifiable, and yet it remains a hermetic mystery, hovering between realism and abstraction.

It is probably not incidental that while King has made art for three decades, during a good part of that span he has led a distinguished career in gemology—grading diamonds and gemstones for clarity, among other things. It is one field of expertise in which carefully defined guidelines apply in relation to a daunting standard: flawless. Grading a diamond becomes a sort of reverse, perverse exercise in astronomy, using specifically designed technology to guide the highly trained eye inward in the hopes of finding… absolutely nothing.

King specializes in colored diamonds, in which hues can vary imperceptibly to the untrained eye. This sensitivity to subtle gradations has very likely informed the palette he deploys in his encaustic paintings. The faintest hint of blue, when layered, accretes into something more evocative of a feeling than a color. Or an intangible—a thought, a whisper, a ghost. The plastic build-up of the surface becomes rough terrain for these transparent hues, minute waves which trap or reflect the infinite moody sky. There is the occasional crimson or pumpkin, though his preferred hues trend toward warm- and cool-toned burnished metals. King’s artworks, like diamonds, politely demand focusing one’s gaze with abiding patience—not in search of flaws, but for an internal universe.

Very often, a King composition can follow in the tradition of the still life. An object is situated at center, or perhaps two objects balancing the canvas, or occupying a floating box—some oddly familiar, yet nonspecific flora, an underwater creature, or a meteorological event. Or some amalgamation of biological and mechanical, a new phylum. “I’m intrigued by the strange quality in the commonplace. I’m interested in what you think you know as much as what you know,” notes King. These objects have enough presence, purpose even, to make you feel like you're spying. Like in Toy Story—leave the room, and the toys are alive and plotting capers. In addition, there is an internal luminosity to the artworks, a curious source of warm light emanating from the layers of beeswax, like blood pulsing through veins, animating the objects.

King finds working in encaustic gratifying. “The range—from satiny to shiny, opaque to translucent, smooth to highly textured—is unbeatable for me,” he notes. And yet he considers drawing to be the core of his work. “I find it so simple and direct, yet able to offer such a wide range of effect. I use different leads for color as well as their tonal effect. Drawing is certainly the most liberating for me and the activity I come back to the most.” He also has created a number of print editions.

King received his MFA from Hunter College/CUNY. For most of three decades, he lived and maintained his studio in a loft in lower Manhattan. He recently moved to Brooklyn, where he now has a separate studio. His profession in gemology has required extensive travel, resulting in an ongoing series of drawings done on hotel stationery. The hotel’s logo and information provide a context for, and often a tension within, the drawing. “They are my attempt to capture my response to an aspect of the trip and the near hallucinatory feelings embedded in the act of travel, with its attendant feelings of isolation, strangeness in the ordinary, and the need to understand and share in the experience,” says King.

He undertook a collaboration based on these drawings with poet William Corbett. King sent a drawing at a time to Corbett, who wrote poems in response. The engaging results were published in a volume entitled Return Receipt. Here is one of Corbett's entries:

You put the pencil
in play then—fate,
Dutch for faith

Pencil, play, fate, faith. Sounds like enough to conjure some art.

—Susan Yung