Marcia Gygli King
     

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  Marcia Gygli King's
Transcendent American Painting

Mel McCombie

 

To call Marcia King's works "paintings" is like calling Saint Peter's a "church." Like Baroque architecture, her works are explosive fusions of media, unions of sculpture and color, gesamkunstwerke that are art historically and philosophically informed, yet joyously and vigorously American. In a way, King is an odd animal in the ironic and appropriative context of New York today. Her work is about passion writ large. It is about nature, transcendence, physicality, humor, eroticism, the apocalypse, the meaning of life and without a trace of irony. These are big subjects (and for the most part, big paintings); what allows her to tread in such rich emotive territory without resorting to the ironic wink and nudge of most postmodernists?

King's artistic character was formed largely under the broad sky and brilliant light of Texas. San Antonio, where she lived for a number of years in the sixties and seventies, is a city whose cultural stew is redolent with Latin flavor, a city where Spanish is spoken by half the residents, and where the visual presence of Latin America literally colors daily life. The transformative experience of Mexican culture is a quotidian encounter in Texas, whether in markets, cars, churches or clothing. Mexican visual culture is itself a conflation of Spanish Baroque grafted onto Mesoamerican indigenous styles; the result is color ratcheted up several notches, a profusion of ornament, and perhaps most importantly, a movingly sincere undercurrent of mystery and spirituality.

San Antonio is also something of an artistic backwater in the best sense. During the years when King was forging her vision, there was no aesthetic authority or local critical discourse that suggested that her style was "out" or that emotional expression had to be veiled or cloaked in irony. King had the freedom to develop along her own lines, much as artists like Richard Diebenkorn or William T. Wiley did in California.

From childhood, when she was given a set of oil paints during a trip to Canada, King has always drawn with authority. Her training was classical drawing from the model, copying the masters - but even in her early figurative work, one sees a love of the mark and a sure, strong hand. Her modus operandi combines plein-air and studio. She draws extensively outdoors, often traveling to areas where sea and land merge, using her drawings to capture not only the surface but the inner sense of a place. King's plein-air drawings are filled with marks, dashes and dots of color that are visual trans-
lations of the movement of water, foliage and wind. Nature for King is composed of both its physical and its metaphorical components; the surge of sea, or sweep of bay, are visual equivalents of emotional states and philosophical convictions.

The philosophical underpinnings of King's work reflect her chosen way of living. She embraces life fully, taking risks in her art, cognizant of mortality but seeking transcendence. She believes fully that one lives life triumphantly through hard work and discipline, eschewing the stereotype of the artist who waits passively for inspiration. King seeks inspiration through effort, knowing - as Matisse did - that daily labor and discipline is the sweat equity for great work.

King's relationship with New York is a curious one. She is loathe to embrace the transitory fashions of form following theory typical of much of the cynical postmodern art made in New York, yet King is intimately familiar with current theory. The combination of craft and high art in King's work owes as much to the experience of living in the Southwest, with its omnipresent folk arts, as to the experience of feminism, with its opening up of modes and media. Her witty translations of historical styles dovetails with the sensibility of the avant-garde art, as does the combination of humor and apocalypse underlying much of her work. Yet King's work is grounded by a profound and authentic emotional tenor that sets it apart from contemporary irony. Her artistic risk-taking embraces not only formal experimentation but emotional expression.

King's working method is singular and essential to the emotive power of her art. After working out a composition in drawings, she prepares the canvas with a characteristic underpainting of dark green, a strange color that acts like a sostenuto underlying a melodic theme. King then paints the composition on immense sheets of hard plastic, and using a technique similar to monoprinting, transfers the painted image onto the prepared canvas. The transferred image has qualities unique to King's work - peaked areas of paint and slight blurs in edges that are not possible in a conventional directly painted image. She then goes back over the painting with brushes and paints directly on the canvas, adding punctuation and articulated brushstrokes on the surface. The relationship of frame to painting is similarly singular. Frames are integral parts of each painting; King designs them to complement each composition, and their extravagant forms often physically dominate the painted images. Like sculptures rather than paintings, and in some works, like Long Island Burning Bush, the frame cascades out into the viewer's space, leaving the canvas as an ancillary member. This blurring of the distinction between media, between painting and sculpture, frame and canvas, frame and furniture, is a key feature of King's art.

Acumal Bay with Boats, 1989. Acrylic on canvas, Mix media frame. 10' x 12' x 9"

One of the sources of the power of King's paintings is her exploitation of the emotive potency of scale, even in physically small works. Her sense of scale is particularly American, sweeping and vast, reflecting both her memory of space in the Southwest, and her own personality. Shapes are rendered in broad, vigorous forms; incidental detail subjugated to the larger needs of the composition; gesture is confident and inclusive. Even King's characteristic perspective system is large scale: strong diagonals give a sense of recession into great depth, similar to the expressive perspective system employed by Tintoretto in his Last Supper or Edvard Munch in The Scream. Whether in a large work like Acumal Bay With Boats or a smaller one like Yellow Wave, the sense of scale remains monumental.

Storm Clearing nominally depicts a Long Island beach scene placed within a deeply sculpted off-white ruffled frame. However, the deep subject of this work is tension - the tension between the nearly-Rococo frame and the seething landscape barely contained within it. The frame is cut and lacquered, resembling ruffled frozen fabric. Though it is enticingly beautiful, it stops short of preciousness by its rough edges in which one can discern the beads of Styrofoam from which it is made, and the pooled areas of clear shellac that still look wet and sexy. The deliberate lack of flawless finish is King's poke in the ribs, her way of letting us know that this is funny as well as highly-wrought. The painting centered in this immense frame is compositionally typical of King's work, a landscape with a foreground repoussoir, strong diagonals and sense of recession, but the colors are particularly seething. They boil, bleed and peak across the canvas, their harmonies unsettling and slightly bilious. The familiar forms of the beach assume a looming, even ominous presence in this scene.

In a recent work, Rain Symbol, King grafts surrealistic painted globes around the frame in a ravishing balancing act. The painted scene is a crashing sea, shaped by her characteristic rushing diagonal; its sense of movement and apocalypse is counterpoint to the elegant balancing act suggested by the frame. The surfaces of painting and frame are equally counterpoint: the lush oil paint contrasts with the dusty matte of frame. Yellow Wave is a smaller painting that would be an easel work but for its scrolled and scratched frame. A sense of both visual echo and dissonance exists between the curling scroll of the frame and the curling wave of the painting, and the elegant references of the frame and the general nastiness of the painting's predatory, grasping image and its unsettling yellow color. This growing sense of dissonance is reinforced by a looming gray shape in the background that suggests the detonation of a bomb.

Several new works point to literal growth of the frame. Long Island Burning
Bush is surrounded by a frame that curves down to the floor in an organic sweep, humorously flaring out to provide seating, then flowing upwards in sweeping, tumescent curves. A new work frames a painting of a curling wave with a pair of elaborate fish creatures that look like Baroque candelabra; they arch upwards toward the ceiling, containing the painting in a tiny area.

Wave with Teeth, 1989. Acrylic on canvas, Mix media frame. 35" x 41" x 3"

It is appropriate to see analogies between King's painting and Baroque art. Both are sumptuous in imagery and materials, and underlying both are powerful spiritual and transcendent impulses. King's work is like Baroque painting leavened with the American experience, as if Bernini or Rubens had sat under the huge sky of Texas and read a little Nietszche. In its inclusive fashion, King's work fuses grand and low modes. One sees overtones of "bad" painting joined with classical landscape; of craft with "high"art; of tension between the flat canvas and the effusive frame; of seduction and repulsion. But consistent throughout her art is rigor. Marcia King pushes her work as hard as she pushers herself; hers is the quintessential American fusion, of sweeping landscape, expressionism, physicality and feminism, united with a sensibility seeking the sublime.

 

 

© September 1989

 

 

Mel McCombie is a faculty member at Smith College. She has an AB, Cum Laude, from Bryn Mawr College, an MA from Stanford University, and a PhD from the University of Texas at Austin in art history. She has written art criticism since 1977 for Arts Magazine, Artnews, The Journal of Art and others.

   
  ©2006 Marcia Gygli King. All rights reserved.
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