Jan King grew up on the vast open planes of western Queensland, a landscape of endless vistas and big sky. There is a starkness to this landscape where foreground and background become abstracted as one during the intense light of the day. A dead branch in a tree can become an isolated drawing against the sky and a fissure in a rock, throwing a deep etched shadow, may give the impression of form detached from nature. This landscape and her childhood memories of place, and the structure of that visual world, have come to inform her work and provide her with a rich source of sculptural ideas.

The way that she has used nature as a springboard for invention and experimentation can be compared to the methodology of the great painter Cézanne. Being one of the first to study form as entity within a scene, he more than any other artist laid the foundation for modernist expression. In his many studies of Mont Sainte-Victoire we can see how he progressed towards a new visual language, a language that the cubists were to pick up on and develop into their highly systematised abstractions. In John Rewald’s biography of Cezanne he quotes a passage from Balzac’s short novel Le Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu (The Unknown Masterpiece) and he says that Cézanne strongly identified with the novel’s main character, the painter Frenhofer, who seemed to clearly express his ideas. In the following quotation from the novel, Frenhofer is talking about drawing the figure:

“I have not coldly outlined my figure and emphasized each minor anatomical detail, for the human body is not limited by lines....Nature comprises a series of curves that interlace. Strictly speaking, drawing does not exist....Line is the means by which man takes account of the effect of light on objects; but there is no line in nature, where everything is full: it is in modelling that one draws, that is to say, one detaches things from their environment - the daylight alone gives the body its appearance!”

Cézanne believed in the idea that form is not simply about producing a line or volume but rather is about modulation and the play of light within a given context. Unlike the Impressionists who followed him, Cézanne maintained that form was the basis of painting and it was form that gave a painting its structure.

With her work King is very aware of modulation and how light effects form. She understands the true nature of visual experience in that what we see depends very much on our perception of relationships and contextual factors. In her work she has been particularly adroit at isolating form, not as a thing in itself but as in the painting of Cézanne, as something that contributes to an overall structure and composition. This is why her sculptures are not about instant recognition and consumption, but rather are objects of contemplation, objects which slowly release their potential.

She does not look for grand themes or statements but rather she takes an intimate approach to the world and through keen observations she finds the genesis of a sculpture. This approach cannot be thought of as a simple progression from the idea to the material and then the finished object, but rather it is a long process of concentrated effort, working on many levels at once, concentrating on the discipline of sculpture to arrive at a satisfactory outcome. There is nothing perfunctory about her work even though with many of her sculptures it seems as if they have just appeared, fully resolved without too much pain or effort. In fact the opposite is true, the mental and physical effort that goes into her sculptures is enormous, but because her work has a certain clarity or completeness of thought, the result does not look laboured or contrived.

Now with her career spanning over thirty years we can see certain directions emerging from her work, ideas like those based on natural forms, rock formations, driftwood, and the ‘placement’ of material by natural forces. There is this connection to the physical environment, the way we perceive certain phenomena in the landscape, then there is the representation of movement in her sculpture, how it relates to the body, how it feels to dance, to move through space. There is no idea fixe in her work but rather a world of received ideas examined for their possibilities; in fact all her sculptures indicate a very informed intelligence, and in the end the dichotomy of subject and object come together like visual haiku, where there is nothing to be added or subtracted.



  "There is no idea fixe in her work but rather a world of received ideas examined for their possibilities; in fact all her sculptures indicate a very informed intelligence, and in the end the dichotomy of subject and object come together like visual haiku, where there is nothing to be added or subtracted."

 


Descant 1987 Steel 200 x 245 x 100 cm
Macquarie University, Sydney



Song for Sophie 1986
Steel
210 x 340 x 215 cm
Collection of the Artist
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Drawing 1987
Collection of the artist
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When critics write about sculpture they say little about the actual process of its making, which tends to be disregarded as mere physical labour, not worthy of consideration within the overall creative process. King would totally disagree with this, because for her, the process of making is an important ingredient of creativity. She is totally involved in the making of her sculptures from beginning to end, for this ‘hands on’ involvement is crucial to the outcome. She does not dismiss the idea of multiples or having work fabricated by others, but she acknowledges that the result will be different, a more remote way of working. She gains enormously from the actual physical aspect of realising form which she describes as part hard work and part sensual experience.

In Song for Sophie (1986) we can get a very good impression of how the object develops in space because the ‘hand’ of the artist is so evident. Shapes are cut and bent to follow a line that seems to have no beginning or end. There is no trajectory within the sculpture but rather the eye is pulled through the sculpture by the elements which are continually engaging and disengaging with each other. There is one straight line which is pointing up diagonally from the base suggesting an entry point, but upon this rests a simple curved line which delicately negates this trajectory. King completed the sculpture during the term of her pregnancy and the exhilaration of this time is evident in the work with its endless cycle of flowing form.

Descant (1987) made one year later is a similar sculpture to Song for Sophie. It has a similar structure, almost a skeletal form, and it has the same scale. It is more paired down than Song for Sophie and the shapes don’t weave in and around each other so much, but rather are detached in space one from the other.

With both these sculptures we can see how King has analyzed the sculptures of Bernini one of the great masters of the Italian Baroque. If we look at say a terra-cotta by Bernini we can see how the ostentatious flourishes of the modelled drapery follow the form of the body but at the same time work independently from the figure as autonomous forms. King uses this concept in
Descant and Song for Sophie where drapery type shapes appear to escape from the structure of the sculpture and become the main focus.

As in the Bernini terra-cottas these shapes are beautifully modelled and take on a very subtle life of their own. By suspending her shapes in space where they are allowed to breath, King introduces us to their gently undulating surfaces that appear as moments of movement within an overall composition.

To further understand her approach to form in space, it is interesting to look at the drawings she was doing at the time of Song for Sophie
and Descant. The drawings are made up of lines and shapes from the very solid to the wispy and we can see how she is trying to come up with a composition which will lend itself to three dimensional form. These drawings are not definitive designs but rather studies for what is possible within the constrains of sculptural practice.

Once embarked on a sculpture she draws on these compositions in an intuitive way where the material is one factor and the negative space another. You could call this ‘drawing in space’ but the process is much more involved than what this phrase implies. At the same time as she is constructing volume she is also introducing movement by creating a continuity of changing configurations. Here material can be both active and passive depending on how the eye makes the connections within the sculpture. The most active material is where the eye makes a connection between points in the sculpture leading to either an expansion or compression in the volume, for example when a shape in the foreground overlaps with a shape in the background making a totally new shape or volume. The passive reading is when the eye is not induced to focus and gives a more general impression of the sculpture where there is no hierarchy of form.

King has also been very influenced by the work of Ian Fairweather, one of Australia’s greatest painters. The sculpture Karaun is based on a drawing by Fairweather of the same name. The visual weight of the material changes throughout the sculpture in much the same way as the weight of the line in the drawing changes. King uses a heavy line to define the outline of the mountains in the same way that Fairweather does but then she departs from representation to concentrate on an abstract composition of free flowing lines.

Fairweather, who spent time in China and South-east Asia, has a style akin to Chinese calligraphy and he uses the device that we get in Chinese painting where form is implied by minimal line and white space. King picks up on this technique by constructing a space of minimal material. Moving from the more solid outline, form is implied with just a few wispy lines in a haphazard grid formation, and lines which finish in empty space leave it up to the imagination of the viewer to complete the ‘scene’. The sculpture has minimal depth and it sits out from the wall by only a few centimetres. It is not relief sculpture because it is not trying to give an impression of three dimensionality but rather it occupies a hybrid space which works off the flat surface of the wall giving it more of a tableau effect. Because it retains the spare sketchiness of the Fairweather drawing it has a sort of surface tension that doesn’t allow the eye any figure/ground interpretation. Also the way the metal is burnished and polished allows light into the sculpture and further detaches the play of forms.

 

"Song for Sophie has a light, billowing play of forms, which, perhaps, reflects the spaced-out feeling women get when they are pregnant. It contains space in such a way that it seems simultaneously full and empty - a very Zen concept. It is also a landscape of sorts, filled with King's characteristic allusions to spindly gum trees and thin, ragged leaves. The rhythm and movement are mesmeric, sending one's gaze weaving in and out of the work. It is a joyous sculpture, and - I don't say this lightly - a masterpiece of its kind."
John McDonald Sydney Morning Herald, June 1998
Review of "Rossmore Steel" at the Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre
Casula, NSW

 


  "By suspending her shapes in space where they are allowed to breath, King introduces us to their gently undulating surfaces that appear as moments of movement within an overall composition."


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680)
Angel with the Crown of Thorns 1667-8
Terracotta with beige surface, 33x13x19cm
Musée du Louvre, Paris



Ian Fairweather Karaun c. 1949
Ink on Paper 16.5 x 21 cm


Karaun 1993
Steel
107 x 172 x 12 cm
This work is available to purchase
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Melia 1993
Slate and Steel
145 x 126 x 75 cm
Image: king street gallery


Quarry 1993
Slate and Steel
51 x 74 x 42 cm

Image: king street gallery

Lamina (1993) is from the same series and here the slate sections are cleverly cradled within a frame producing smooth flat surfaces. These surfaces rise at the same angle but overlap in a fan shaped formation so that the eye steps down into the sculpture from one broken slate edge to the next, almost like stepping off a ledge in the landscape. The landscape analogy also works when looking at the sculpture from below where the slate sections create cavernous volumes and overhang like jagged rock ledges.

In 1994 Jan King travelled to upstate New York to take part in Art Omi, the summer workshop held annually for international artists. Here in the studios the participants are encouraged to push the parameters of their chosen media and to take risks while being exposed to some very astute criticism. King chose to rediscover the grid, a devise she had used in an earlier phase of her career. She came across some very old grill material formed from sections woven together rather than welded, giving it a softer more undulating appearance. The material has a very handmade look as opposed to later more manufactured looking grills, and this choice of material demonstrates a very good eye for what will work in a certain context. Although steel is an industrial material she tends to consider its various manifestations as merely another material in the environment. It may be intended for some end use but for her it exists as random material only, ready to be used and manipulated for its intrinsic qualities alone. She is very aware of the visual clichés associated with constructed steel sculpture and therefore, with her use of material, she tries to avoid any stylistic traps.


Stack Slide 1994
Steel


Starscape 1994
Steel and River Stones

After returning to Australia she continued to use mesh in a series of small compact sculptures that also incorporate stacking as a device. These sculptures belong to the Rock Pool series looking at the phenomena of how wave action stacks and arranges material within a confined space. The role of the mesh here is to introduce the notion of the transparent surface. King uses the mesh to signify the surface of the water as it washes over the rock pool, lapping over and around the material crammed within. She has introduced lots of off-cuts into these sculptures to get the effect of a natural ‘assemblage’ with lots of small and differing elements wedged together.

With both Tanja (1995) and Toalio (1995) we can see how the basic shape of the sculptures retain the shape of a natural pool. The way that the shapes are curved inwards suggest the undercutting that occurs as material wears away the rock interior. With these sculptures we can imagine the effect of wave action pushing material around and binding it together into a tightly wedged conglomerate. These sculptures are like three dimensional notations denoting a very complex natural process and in the end King comes up with an abstract language that distills the essence of the subject.

Darragh which was also shown in 1995 retains the compactness of the other two sculptures but it is a different sculpture altogether. Here the curvilinear form that acts as container is set on the vertical and the interior has been opened up and animated with a series of filigree shapes. Spatially the sculpture is a convolution of the internal giving way to the external. The eye follows the progression of the internal shapes which twist and turn like shadow puppets and eventually make contact with an external arch by way of a very thin line. This line, representing movement from the internal volume to the external, is a deft piece of drawing that opens up the sculpture and introduces a modal change; transforming what could have been a dull sculpture into a dynamic, sensuous piece.

Barragga (1995) and Dark Beach (1995) both demonstrate how a semi-transparent material like mesh can introduce quite evocative modal changes into a piece. Even though one is a free standing piece and the other a wall piece both sculptures more or less do the same thing. The modal change relates to the state of the piece, whether it is static or dynamic, enclosed or open, solid or transparent etc. With both these sculptures the changes come about by way of the distribution of the mesh throughout the piece and the way it interacts with the cut out shapes. The mesh acts as the linking material and because it is not as “fixed” in space as the solid elements its function in the sculpture is to evoke a transitional shift between the mass and negative space. Throughout the sculpture it creates an optical effect much like the interplay of shadows on distant hills as clouds drift by. At times it is dense and melds with other elements in the sculpture and at other times it is quite ethereal as it transits negative space.

 

In 1993 Jan King began a series of sculptures utilising slate as a major component. Slate is a hard, inert material with a predetermined structure and she found herself having to adapt to these givens. King uses the phrase ‘renewing the tension’ to describe what happens when a new material is introduced into her sculpture. She is aware that at times a certain familiarity with material can lead to complacency so using a different material changes the mind set and requires a new way of working, which is both physically and aesthetically challenging.

With the sculpture Melia (1993) we can see that her approach was to use the slate very much in its ‘found’ state and counterpoint its flatness and rigidity with the light arabesque touch of the more easily manipulated steel. The two materials are used in terms of a duality, each playing a separate and different role within the sculpture, but together achieving a beautifully balanced spatial interplay.

King has used the slate as vertical stays exposing the beautiful sensuous line of their edges to the viewer. There are three vertical sections and a fourth sits between the two tallest, creating a slightly tilted surface. The sections come together to determine the structure and work as the background ‘architecture’ of the piece. The spaces between the slate sections are then activated by lines in steel describing gently curving shapes that complement the more rigid slate forms. The resulting transparent shapes at times appear as echoes of the more solid shapes and at other times they test the boundary of the sculpture, pushing the sculpture away from the solid, inert material, to a more transitional space, something akin to experiencing the phenomena of an afterimage.

At the base of the sculpture a line of steel glides gently across the surface of a prone section of slate creating a different visual experience, this time one of movement. The inert slate becomes quickened by the transition of the steel and the two materials combine to capture the eye as a sliding surface.

Within the sculpture there are many such instances where the materials combine to provide us with some form of novel experience. Another example is the way the flat section of steel sits atop the ‘table top’ slate section. We see it both as active and passive form. First it sits discretely upon the slate, then it gently folds down to activate the space below the slate. This simple placement has the effect of changing the dynamic of the slate from one of simple divider to one of fulcrum, around which the movement within the sculpture takes place.

 

Quarry (1993) is a much smaller, compact sculpture, and again we are aware of a dialogue taking place between the two materials. The steel provides an external skeletal form within which the slate is wedged. The sculpture is turned in on itself creating an interesting interplay between the straight lengths of steel and the gentle curves of the fractured slate.


Lamina1993
Slate and Steel
22 x 53 x 52 cm

 


For example with Stack Slide (1994) she takes a simple concept like stacking and through her arrangement and choice of material she has managed to create a very complex and interesting sculpture. One can over analyze a sculpture but it is interesting to deconstruct a piece like Stack Slide to emphasize the acuity and concordance associated with such a work. For instance the three cylinders rest one on top of the other as weights and their solidity contrast perfectly with the open grid system. It is their ambiguity as elements separating the grid system while at the same time tying it together that gives the piece its visual interest. With this arrangement King has achieved an effect of the middle and top cylinders floating within their respective layers. The formal arrangement starts with the grids departing together from the base layer and then separating to become the support for each of the cylinders in turn. In this way the tension associated with the weight of the cylinders is dissipated and we are presented with an object that appears half stack and half slide as its name suggests.

  Although steel is an industrial material she tends to consider its various manifestations as merely another material in the environment. It may be intended for some end use but for her it exists as random material only, ready to be used and manipulated for its intrinsic qualities alone.

 

 
The floating phenomena continues in the sculpture Starscape (1994) which is also from her period at Omi. Here river stones are suspended within a concentric mesh system with the larger size mesh on the outside graduating down to smaller size mesh towards the centre of the piece. The river stones are placed at various heights and levels and they too diminish in size towards the centre. All this has the effect of creating layered density in much the same way as we look into the Milky Way and see the ever increasing density of the star system; and there is a playfulness about the sculpture, as if some amateur astronomer had set up a model of whirling asteroids. Again King has demonstrated that with her choice of simple material, both natural and industrial, she can produce some very innovative and sublime effects.



Tanja 1995
Oiled Steel
20 x 56 x 44 cm
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Toalio1995
Oiled Steel
12 x 28 x 29 cm
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Darragh 1995
Burnished Steel
32 x 36 x 15 cm

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Barragga 1995
Steel Painted
225 x 95 x 56 cm

Dark Beach 1995
Painted Steel
220 x 108 x 24 cm

 

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