Almost There (2016)
Hardground etching, image 11 1/4 x 8 1/2 inches, sheet 18 x 14 inches. Edition of 20. Printed and published by VanDeb Editions, Long Island City, NY.

John McDevitt King has long devoted himself to the depiction of objects experienced in his imagination. Spheres, coils, candles, plants, light reflections, shadows and shapes float through his ethereal paintings, drawings and prints. Pictured through layer upon layer of encaustic wax or fuzzy, dark graphite, King’s subjects are curiously amorphous, as if seen through a fog or veil. Although he has made relatively few prints, he produced several striking soft-ground etchings with VanDeb Editions in 2006 and 2011, using the medium’s inherent blurriness to mimic the look of his graphite drawings. This past year, King returned to VanDeb, but this time chose to work in hard-ground etching, and the resulting edition, Almost There, marks an intriguing new direction.

Utterly distinct from his previous prints and drawings, Almost There inverts King’s customary approach. He usually works from light to dark, building shadowy scenes by layering his medium (wax, graphite, ink) on a light-colored surface, so his objects seem to emerge from, or disappear into, darkness. In Almost There, however, darkness forms the base. With its dense web of crosshatched lines printed in bright white ink on jet-black paper, the print has the visually unsettling positive-negative reversal of a photographic negative.

Hard-ground etching, with its scratchy linearity, is a surprising choice for King, yet it has yielded a new way of revisiting a familiar subject. Although devoid of his characteristic soft hand and hazy affect, Almost There nonetheless evinces the artist’s fascination with imaginary objects. Strewn about the picture plane are a number of mysterious things: at upper left, several unidentifiable forms are buried in a thick web of crosshatching. A sheet of paper appears hung (or laid) parallel to the picture plane at the upper right, with one of its corners curled toward the viewer—a classic trompe l’oeil meant to fool viewers into confusing the drawing with a real paper sheet in space. King’s sketchy drawing, however, impedes this hoary bit of visual trickery. In the lower left corner and along the right edge of the plate, several small objects appear suspended in an indistinct space.

Indeed, most of the things in Almost There are unrecognizable, which is what makes them so intriguing. “I’m interested in the gap between thoughts,” King has stated, “the moments when things crystallize.”(1) In Almost There, he pushes this idea to its extreme. The print challenges us to accept our inability to make sense of King’s ambiguous still life, in which the subjects refuse to crystallize, remaining— as the title implies—almost (but not quite) there.

—Julie Warchol

1. John McDevitt King quoted in Stephen K. Vessels, “Review of John King: An Exhibit of Works at the Atkinson Gallery, Santa Barbara City College, February 2008