Magical Mystery Tour

The occasional gallery-goer thinks an afternoon spent at some art exhibition as a stroll around a lot of pictures of still-lifes and landscapes. Pleasant but not especially exciting or involving. (Many opt for the latest movie.) Not so at the exhibition of John King's encaustic paintings at the Gallery at R & F, whose "special effects" will dazzle the eye and stir the emotions.

Anyone who believes in the efficacy of signs, and the ability of simple spaces to carry and release powerful associative cargo should undertake the magical mystery tour of looking at King's richly surfaced yet translucent pictures.

This allurement is due, in large part, to his extraordinary skill with the demanding medium of encaustic (the process of mixing pigment with melted wax). As King comments in his artist's statement, "...its change in states from liquid to solid, the sense of 'air' when used translucently, yet it is very physical." King continues, "The activity is the act of painting itself. Much of what links that activity are subtle visual and/or intellectual ambiguities that tamper with our sense of confidence in what we see or know."

The viewer does not think of paintings in terms of weather, but much of King's work seems to exist in that season associated with "Wuthering Heights" and the Yorkshire moors -- smoke and fermentations. But King is not a romanticist. His elegance is not a matter of style. It comes from deeper wells; from a sense of the accumulated language of modernism. It is an elegance of realized thought.

In one of King's untitled paintings (there are several) three-quarters of the picture plane is the color if wind; silvery and gray. At the bottom of the picture is a row of hands reaching up and spattered with raindrops. In another untitled, one can discern ice-glazed rooftops with a razor blade tucked away in a corner; it dares the viewer to carve a window into the attic, that special area of leftover lives and dusty discovery of past obsessions.

Many of the paintings on view have color as object -- a near infinite range of blues, gray-greens and a kind of creamy cerulean blue, all made possible by the use of encaustic. The surfaces and colors become stable characters in a plot of sensation. The only recognizable feature, at times, is a suggestion of a door or window in the paint to give access to the field -- a passage from outside to inside. These paintings, so elusive and fluid, bear out Mallarme's famous phrase about describing not the object itself, but the effect it produces.

In yet another untitled painting, King creates a seascape by the passages of tone in the paint; the variations of a slately blue depth drench the eye in sea-light without offering a glimpse of a horizon. It is as though he has stripped nature to its bare essence -- discarding the thing, but leaving the nuances -- then putting in a small recognizable object, humanizing the blue and saving the eye from getting lost in it.

King's color is almost never descriptive. Some tones and hues suggest an "Irish" influence. In one painting the viewer can build an entire scenario of James Joyce's meditation on Dublin's river Liffey. It is as though his color is never an adjective but always a noun. King lives and works in New York City. In addition to painting, he has worked as a diamond grader, a job that requires an ability to distinguish fine gradations of color. King has exhibited extensively in both solo and group exhibitions.

Joan D'Arcy
The Daily Freeman, February 27, 1998
Kingston, NY