The Medium is the Message: Kevin King's Retrospective at Highfield Hall
By: Elise Hugus, June 6, 2012
ELISE HUGUS - Falmouth artist Kevin King (center) takes a moment out from an opening reception for his Highfield show with his brothers, William (left) and Michael King, both of Pittsfield.
Visiting an art gallery or a museum can feel like a missed opportunity at times. Lean in to read the title card next to an interesting work and it invariably reads something like “Untitled #9, oil on canvas.”
While it may not be in vogue to reveal motivation and process in such literal terms, these blank descriptions leave the viewer with few clues with which to interpret the artist’s intentions.
Those who like the medium to fit the message will be more than satisfied with a retrospective of Falmouth artist Kevin King’s work on display at Highfield Hall through June 24.
The show offers as much insight into King’s evolution as an artist as it delivers commentary on some of the major events of our time, from his 1973 “Self Portrait as Politically Naive”—painted on a board riddled with bullet holes on the 10th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination— to “In Between the Lines,” a ghostly depiction of the World Trade Center towers painted with the ashes of the Bible, the Koran and the remains of Ground Zero in 2001.
With the flick of a match, King transformed these religious tomes into an innocuous painting material, unrecognizable from any other burnt object. Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms met the same fate.
Questions of sacrilege, censorship, and cultural insensitivity are reduced to ashes with the simple observation that, for all the historical and symbolic meaning in these books, they look the same on canvas after being consumed by fire.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust
“In Between the Lines” was first shown at the Fitchburg Museum’s exhibit “A Nation Mourns,” and later featured in The Boston Globe and Cape Cod Magazine. It hung in the Falmouth Public Library in remembrance of the 10th anniversary of September 11th. Despite this exposure, Mr. King said he has yet to hear a complaint about the nature of his chosen medium.
“I expected a few death threats, at least,” King said jokingly, in an interview following his reception on Friday. In a more serious tone, he stressed that his intention is not to offend anyone, but rather to highlight the power—and the threats to power—contained in these books.
“I’ve got my own belief system, and I know that comes across in my subject matter. But I’m not trying to influence anyone with my work. It’s grounded in the moment when I create things,” he said.
King’s artist statement sheds light on some of his intentions: “Art is energy shaped by intelligence, experience and will. This energy is generated in the land of our ancestors, where the stream of existence flows. The artist is fed by this. We carry the fire.”
Form is function
King's ash series began in the late 1990s, when he started considering the similarities between abstraction and realism. Concluding that any representation of a three-dimensional object is an abstract, he decided to paint an object with itself—in powder form.
In 1997, he started cremating mackerel, mixing the ash with mineral oil to better adhere to the canvas, in what has become a colorful series titled “Holy Mackerel.”
These smaller and eye-pleasing fish portraits are probably King’s most “Cape Cod” work, yet delve into the surreal with a mackerel-meets-Van Gogh depiction of the fish in the midst of “Starry Night,” and take on religious undertones with the mackerel alongside Jesus and a cross.
King’s inclination toward the surreal is evident in his “Logic” series, which he painted over the last decade. In “Bio-Logic, Natural History,” an orb is interrupted by rectangular lines, revealing a dove shaped in the form of praying hands as it flies above a lunar form, a school of fish and a monarch butterfly.
In “Geo-Logic, #1” King used sediment cores from the Red Sea, courtesy of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Those familiar with Joan Lederman’s “Earthworks” pottery will recognize the earthy tones and textures created by using marine deposits as paint or glaze, but the effect is no less incredible with King’s painting of rust-colored mountains, set against an otherworldly yellowish backdrop.
The surreal becomes an abstract take on reality with “Theo-Logic, Tsunami,” painted in 2011. Rusted sheet metal rips across a violent blue-green wave and waterlogged quadrant, viewed from a distance, as if from an airplane surveying the wreckage.
King’s message is more light-hearted, but the materials no less interesting in “Bamboo Jungle,” a woodcut he created in 1992 from bamboo and wormwood, or in “Island Life III,” a sculpture he made in 1993 from bamboo, wicker, stone and wax.
These mixed media works mark the beginning of King’s foray into found art, in which he uses everything from banana leaves to wooden doors.
“Things cross my path. It’s like a journey, going up a mountaintop because you want to see what’s there. You can continue going but you find other things that are intriguing,” he said.
Beyond the image
While he resists the idea of branding himself as an “ash artist,” King said he has not finished saying all he has to say with the medium, and plans on continuing the burned book series in an even larger format fit for a museum.
A native of Western Mass, King moved to North Falmouth in 1972, working alternately as a mechanic and carpenter, graphic artist, videographer and researcher. In addition to these disparate careers, he found time to produce a body of work that fills the stairwell and entire top floor of Highfield Hall.
Though there was not enough space at Highfield to include his paintings from the 1980s, King said he was grateful for the chance to show his work in the town that he has called home for the past 40 years. “It’s been hard to show locally,” he said.
Though he showed his work frequently through the 1970s and ’80s, King said he has become disillusioned with the feel-good imagery that is now synonymous with Cape Cod art.
“To reduce painting to this imagery is like elevator music. A good majority of the work is what people will buy and that’s why it’s there. I don’t feel like my work fits there,” he said.