Much So Strangely Soft and Self-Illuminating: The Drawings of John King

[The act of the imagination] is an incantation destined to produce the object of one's thought... The objects obey these orders of consciousness: they appear.
-- John Paul Sartre

The deep subject of John King's quiet art is the phenomenology of the imagination, where things born in the mind's eye are first fabricated of airy substance floating in non-perspectival penumbral mists, in a place where there is "much so strangely soft and self-illuminating," as the poet Rainer Maria Rilke put it, a line remarkably apt as a description of these drawings. Populated sparely by entities derived from the work of such mental conjuration, King's drawings seem to capture qualities of those elusive figures as they first emerge in the mind, coaxing them into the dimensional planarities of pictorial illusionism where they present themselves to the eye and mind anew. Part world-objects -- for, like all imagined objects, characteristics and curious details from the world of the real also obtain to their sometimes surprising configurations -- what we encounter in King's work comes to us indelibly marked by the free play of phantasy, thereafter translated once again into the demi-world of representation's more concrete form.

As originary constituents of imagination's shadowy realm, King's represented objects, perched precariously at the edge of credibility, observe rules not entirely of the physical world in which we live but rather the very specific physics of fancy, where measurements of scale and distance, or mundane laws of gravity and solidity and mass, function with logics that lie always somewhat askew to what we think we know about the world of substantive reality. Representations called forth in the imagination manage to accrue convincing solidity and mass only by virtue of the mind's coeval invention of other forms with which they can then relate and interact; their sense of spatial stability depends on much the same. The effort to convey physicality through objective interaction is frequently played out in the scenarios King depicts, where, generally, we come to understand objects in his drawings by what they do: there are things that float; things that hang. In some drawings, such as in Ballad of Dependency, King goes to great lengths to establish the credible real-world physicality of his represented objects, a credibility that depends much on complex relations of weight and counterweight, suspension and tension. King's are things ascendant as such because they do something in space, even when for the most part they sit quietly on the sheet.

Despite ready signs of worldly familiarity, these scenes are also partly governed by a physics that is recognizably not our own. As is true of the imagination's inventions, objects throughout these drawings confront us with cues that they are capable of behaving with surprising, and sometimes unruly eccentricity. In accordance with the mixed nature of the imagination's phenomenology, the logical structures by which we conceive of things in the mind continue partly to relate to physical properties of the real: even the imagination operates in a realm where an ideational sense of gravity governs that things rest, balance, possess mass. Although gravity continues to operate as a sovereign principle throughout King's pictures (nowhere do things merely float aloft), in some sheets gravity is alluded to only to be undone. For evidence of this, we need look only so far as the impossible physics of Poise, where one object counterbalances another far too small, or the zero-gravity of the floating disks that directly contradicts the firmly grounded yet enigmatic contraption in Two Possibilities.

If mentally conjured objects accrue a sense of physical attributes like weight and mass by virtue of relative interaction with other objects, size is established in the mind through internal arrangements of perspective. The imagination's infinite capaciousness possesses no absolute frame of reference for scale, enabling vast and complex combinatorial possibilities among internally envisioned objects. Even without a great deal on offer by way of stable points of reference, one would say that King's world appears primarily to feature small things. It remains, nonetheless, a conceptual challenge to establish whence precisely one derives that poignant sense of smallness. Cognitive psychologists tell us that people spontaneously imagine smaller objects closer in mental representations; perhaps for this reason do many of King's compositions favor the nearness of objects, often placed toward the base of the sheet, the artist leaving much of the atmospheric areas that surround them unarticulated and bare. That surrounding space tends to appear both shallow and deep (thus continues a host of spatial and physical paradoxes that govern King's world), opening onto seemingly infinite vistas. Internal planes, on the other hand, are frequently quite steep, oriented acutely toward the picture plane. Some of the drawings have discernible horizon lines, like Fold; more often an edge of a table or another internally represented support is in evidence. Some drawings invite a traversal of space, as does Causeway Bay. Others pose spaces that invite contemplation at a distance. Whatever the case, in most drawings truly stable orientation is nearly impossible. The absence of fixed points of comparative reference -- other than the real-world materiality of sheet size, which can be both small or not -- leaves one searching for an endlessly elusive sense of stability. Unable to orient ourselves securely, we cling to the sheet as a physically objective element to stabilize perspective. The objects do as well: they sometimes hang from the upper edge of the paper support as if the top of the sheet were a true ceiling, as in Up Under. Elsewhere, where objects find themselves inhabiting a mysterious nether-space of variously graded semi-transparent shadows and planes, they sometimes huddle near edges or against delimiting planes, as in Habitat, almost as if to batten themselves down.

Habitat is rare in its overall darkness. In general King's touch lightly but amply covers his sheets, conferring to the drawings a kind of internal glow, as if these were scenes conjured in the hypnogogic twilight of reverie. Light is always hard to source in King's world, where objects are half-lit, like nascent figures in the gloaming. Their depicted shadows, on the other hand, become something we very much depend on for perceptual information: shadows provide us, for instance, with a sense of orientation and placement. Curiously, however, they offer information not so much about the object to which they are attached but about the ground on which a given object stands. Rare is the form in these drawings where some aspect of the sheet support doesn't show through, as King's graphite tends toward subtle variations in densities of open tones. (The glistening ball of hard-pressed graphite in Up Under, crushed to a smoothly textured sheen, offers a notable exception.) Looking at a drawing by King, one feels at times as though one were squinting through a fog to catch a glimpse at another world, but this otherworldly impression is always contradicted by the sheer frontality -- the open honesty -- of the objects in his pictorial spaces. For these are, for the most part, the least hidden of objects. They are not trying to conceal anything, even if they are, as creature-objects, sometimes remarkably coy. The objects in King's drawings tend sometimes toward so severe a frontal orientation that it confers on them a sense of anthropomorphized eagerness for engagement, the objects so lively and animate as though quietly expressing gladness to have us there. As such, they seem to present themselves as forms-for-us. Yet despite their openness to being apprehended, a quality which one could understandably mistake for a kind of "friendliness," these forms are distinctly not anthropomorphic: a deep respect for the autonomy of the object world is carefully held in King's drawings, where objects stand in open relationship to us but are in no way determined by that relationship. These forms steadfastly stand a world apart. They are not objects for use -- or, if so, then only in the very narrow sense that they offer themselves to the beholder's imagination as something like welcome company.

Drawing is a way of relating to the world, or a very specialized means of discovering a relationship to the world through invention. King's drawings draw a space in between mind and world -- a transitional space in which the mind may play and, even if in a paradoxical and limited way, populate itself with pleasurable companions. In light of this, it is perhaps fitting that the atmosphere of these drawings is qualified by both a subtle humor and playfulness and a kind of poignant yearning. This particular admixture of affect reflects a certain truth of the imagination: as it extends itself in the endeavors of drawing, the imagination is capable of offering an unlimited space of sheer and joyous possibility, yet one ultimately constrained by virtue of a necessary solitude. King's drawings seem to mirror the solitary state of creativity and the deeply private nature of the mind's inventiveness. In his work we encounter acutely isolated spaces and objects, for its creaturely representations are ultimately born of one. Like the nature of the imagination itself, these drawings reflect a sense of profound depopulation, an atmosphere of isolation that can at times feel quite keen. Considered in this context, one might think of drawing as functioning something like incantation. The loneliness of the mind, by dint of necessity, comes to create a community of objects and forms to keep it company -- and to keep it placed, and held, in the sometimes radical disorientation of aloneness. But like the solitary child who reaches for a toy as an apotropaic weapon against the ghosts of loneliness, King's drawings work as much to incarnate a hopeful relatedness as they echo a profoundly felt isolation. For ultimately this art imagines how we are able to keep ourselves company, and transposes that vision onto how we might imagine objects holding themselves -- like the two tiny spheres nestled together beneath a protective sheath in Habitat -- and perhaps their holding of us as well.

Despite King's deep engagement in such conceptual abstractions, for all this he is very much a process artist, ever interested in questions about the nature of the activity of drawing itself. How does mark-making generate form? How does the pressure of graphite on a page come to invent a world, somewhere between world and imagination? Pervaded by exotic creatures extracted from other realms, King's drawings are partly based on a distinct knowledge of natural form. Yet even as the strange objects in Lovely Evasion evoke a palpable sense of sea-urchinness, these creatures have in fact been shaped more from discovery through process than from any a priori sense of a specific animal's features. These objects appear instead out of a sheer love of mark-making, a particular movement of the hand and wrist, repeated again and again and again, its own iterations having naught to do with the purposive drive of the bringing-forth of recognizable form.

With the sparest of means -- graphite pencil and a sheet of paper -- King investigates not so much how the mind comes to "know" the world through the harmonized concert of drawing instrument, eye and hand. Rather, King explores how the imaginative capacity of mind contributes to -- and sometimes contradicts -- cognition's at times more prominent cause. In King's world, the twist on the path to truths of consciousness is that the mind, even as it reaches out with hand and eye to delight in the tracing of contours, helping it to familiarize itself with the world of real objects, is always crossed by vectors of the imagination, which makes its own incontravertible contributions, inflections, and distortions. King's work hovers in this half-world of hybrid objects composed of the known and the invented, in a space between the seen and the dreamed. What one comes to know in the experience of King's art has not so much to do with a knowledge of thingliness, per se, but rather an intensifying awareness of how the mind's imaginative capacity enriches and complicates what we might think we already know.

Kathryn A. Tuma
2005