Checking in at the Hotel King

Out of the blue in late February, 2002 I received a letter from John King, whom I did not know, asking if I'd consider writing a text of some sort to accompany 28 of his drawings made on hotel stationery. He offered me slides of these to look at and slides of paintings as well. Yes, I replied, send them and we'll go from there. When they arrived I knew at once I had something to say in response even though I did not know that the drawings had been done in actual hotel rooms: I later learned that John will only use the stationery of hotels he has stayed in when traveling for pleasure or work (in addition to his art John is an expert in evaluating diamonds for the Gemological Institute of America). John agreed to send me copies of his 28 drawings, one at a time and to each drawing I wrote a poem, which I sent to him by return mail. Save for a few late edits the poems were written the day John's drawings reached me. The resulting "correspondence" became our book Return Receipt.

The drawings themselves might have been enough provocation to words, but the letterheads with address and phone/fax numbers running along the bottom of the sheet added a great deal. First, these words added the obvious -- I knew some of the cities and towns if not the actual hotels where John had stayed and some letterheads set off a literary or other association. But what this frame revealed most powerfully was that John's drawings were private, and they read like inner thoughts, recognizable as images but not necessarily or not obviously related to their surroundings. They reminded me of my own thoughts and images that came to me, sudden, unbidden, inexplicable and not clearly connected to where I was when in a hotel or motel room far from home.

John's images struck me as essences emerged from a pure space in the imagination where forms break free from the everyday. The stationery and the anonymous hotel rooms absent of studio distractions must have inspired this freedom. On stationery the drawings are ambiguous messages, refined doodles with an off-the-top-of-the-head humor and a refusal of clear meaning. On plain drawing paper they would surely lose some of these qualities. Sometimes, John told me later, he sat down with an image in mind: other nights his day left him with what he worked with or, less frequently, his pencil took his hand where it felt right to go. He was free to amuse himself or just pass the time.

To these drawings I wrote parallel poems, just what came to mind, riffing based, in some instances, on associations with image and address, on other days words came that could only have come in response to John's images. These words arrived from...wherever, beginning to form in sequence as soon as I opened the envelope and unfolded John's drawing.

Because John uses the stationery provided by his hosts completed drawings become both letters to himself and pages in a work/travel journal. But in his New York studio these drawings are freestanding. They may stop at that stage or their look and feel may enter directly into his painting. In an exhibition of the breadth of this Santa Barbara show -- drawings, prints and paintings since 1998 with half of these coming from the past five years -- the generative role of these drawings is everywhere present.

Perhaps the circularity of this process, the tidal going out and returning home, account for the images that recur in King's work. There are circles arranged like bracelets or springs, balls, cannon balls, pebbles or marbles, suspended from string or otherwise tethered, heaped in pyramids, juggled in air, afloat in a paper boat or supporting a balance board. His viewers are like the hotel's next guest who discovers a King drawing on his room's blotter. He's checked into a world of images, familiar in their elements but as mysterious or enlightening as his imagination's ability to read and respond to what he sees.

In his SoHo New York studio, a largish room with a small white section marked out for painting, confining in its way as a hotel desk, King likes to put an image on wood panel, paper or vellum. He works with blues, grays, diminished golds, fog-greens, an occasional mist of pink-cubist hues-and encaustic, a medium and surface he's loved since college, His size varies from 12" x 9" to 56" x 44" but small or large the mood or weather in his work is often subdued. In the brightest Kings you may feel that the overhead light has just been turned on. Images, whether lighted candles or exploding fireworks in reflection, often have a ghostly presence given greater nuance by encaustic's dual translucent yet opaque nature. Encaustic immediately suggests Jasper Johns, but in terms of King's art Johns is instructive because of the way these artists explore collage. King does not hang real brooms or tin cans from his works, but he does like to "sit" or "site", a drawing in a painted space thus an object holding an image is on an object. If such a thing is possible this is an interior collage in which like a ghost the image belongs to its own world as well as to our common world. Johns has long worked this territory and great clouds of words have followed him.

My eye tells me that for both Johns and King their art is its own best explanation. Venture too far into ideas and what is there, guarded and less given to disclosure in King than the ruder Johns, is obscured. Take King's "Brandon", at the large end of his scale. This is a memory picture, both a horizon line where crisscrossed logs resemble holiday fireworks going off and a wall where seven separate images have been screened like frames from a film or hung like drawings. This is art very conscious of its intention to engage the viewer in a world that is real only in so far as the artist creates that sensation. King's snowflakes in "Night's Gambit" (the snowflakes are descendants of those caught by Vermont's photographer of snowflakes "Snowflake" Bentley just as Brandon is a town in Vermont) will never fall out of their frame. The viewer is as much outside looking in as inside looking at.

Recently, sitting in John's studio on a late November afternoon looking at the paintings that are John's ultimate response to what he returned with from those hotel rooms I responded again to the ambiguity at the core of his work. John's imagination grounds itself where the demand to withhold arises simultaneously with the desire to reveal. Indeed, John's art asks his viewer to see what is revealed in the withheld and, consider the life-giving paradox, that revealing never reveals enough. Our imaginations always want more and thus narratives begin. The caught snowflake reminds us of all the snowflakes that disappear in a second. The grayish light of John's paintings has a morning and an evening grain, something beginning or about to be lost from sight. When his images are more brightly lit and we see them plain we can't be certain of where that ball in "Responder" is bound for in its paper boat. John's art doesn't stop the flow of time but puts his viewer in its midst or, given the nature of encaustic, in its drizzled mist, where objects within our uncertain grasp, retaining the power to surprise and mystify, point us into the here and now.

William Corbett
2007