Nude and the Mountains 1998
Slate with Oiled Steel
36 x 81 x 30 cm


In 1998 Jan King completed a work titled Nude and the Mountains in response to a brief for an invitational group exhibition called “Figure in the Landscape” at King Street Gallery in Sydney. The brief was that the work should combine aspects of the figure with those of the landscape, to which King took an interesting approach, combining her two favourite materials, steel and slate.

The sculpture harks back to her earlier work Karaun from 1993 and its reference to the landscape drawing Karaun by Ian Fairweather. The hills in this sculpture are rather reminiscent of those from the Fairweather drawing. Here they are suggested by slabs of slate that rise up from the base and become the backdrop for a peaceful, Arcadian scene where the nude lies in blissful isolation. The nude has been flame cut into a slightly bulbous, curved section of steel, which gently rests on a rock shelf of broken slate. It has been drawn in bold outline, like a Matisse sketch and presented similar to an aboriginal rock carving. As we move around the piece to the opposite side we are presented with a different aspect of the scene, a distant view of a mountain range rendered as an abstract composition. This composition retains a landscape feel, but looking again we see another figure, the shape of the steel suggests a reclining nude. When we recognise this ‘secondary’ nude what is happening is that the mind is switching between two meanings, an abstracted landscape and the image of a nude. This phenomena is similar to the one we experience when we at look at the ambiguous figure of the vase/faces (fig 1). This example is often used in discussions of visual perception to show how the eye and brain work together to resolve ambiguity. Basically it is an either or situation, at first we see the illustration as a vase but then the information ‘switches’ and we see it as two identical faces. Artists have always exploited our various perceptual abilities and predilections, and have always attempted to take us into new realms of exciting visual experiences.


Nude and the Mountains 1998
Slate with Oiled Steel
36 x 81 x 30 cm


Fig 1

Thetis 1999
Painted Steel
60 x 94 x 30 cm
Image: king street gallery

In a work like Thetis (1999) we have an interesting juxtaposition of imagery. The sculpture begins with soft undulating forms creating a base from which sprout a collection of vertical shapes from one end. Within the right angle thus formed, King slides in a series of arcs, which give the impression of waves crashing onto a rocky headland. Thetis was a Goddess of the sea, one of the fifty Nereides who inhabited the Mediterranean. Their role was to save and protect sailors who had been shipwrecked or lost at sea. The sculpture evokes the story but is not about a literal subject. It is what the story suggests, more of an elaboration of a scenario than the actual script. The Goddess Thetis could also change her shape at will, which seems to reinforce one aspect of the sculpture which is one of transformation, the transformation from the solid block-like shapes to the gliding arcs, and by way of the dematerialisation of the sculpture, the suggestion of an ethereal presence.

Cyllene 1999
Painted Steel
37 x 49 x 18 cm

Image: king street gallery

King has been showing regularly at the king street gallery on burton in Sydney since 1993. By 1999 the sculptures were consistently flowing from the studio. Many of the sculptures were given mythological titles, not as a way of imparting gravitas to the pieces but rather to indicate a contemplative process. This process involves immersing herself in the stories of ancient Greece and Eastern culture where her mind has been able to travel far and wide to arrive at imagery removed from the humdrum of everyday life. This is a form of daydreaming, but for her it is an exercise, a voyage of discovery full of expectations for the new and unforseen. For most of her career she has been heavily committed to teaching at the National Art School in Sydney, a commitment, which has consumed a lot of creative energy. Some artists find the disciplines of teaching and studio practice almost incompatible but King has managed to pull off a fine balance between the two. It has helped that she has set herself these contemplative exercises enabling her to block out distractions and get on with her work.









Cyllene (1999) evokes a nocturnal scene with a three quarter moon-shape and slivers of cloud drifting by. The structural shape of the sculpture follows on from Thetis. A smooth arc slides in among a number of discordant elements introducing a sense of order and clarity to the composition. A number of finicky little shapes emerge from the bottom of the arc as if King wanted to continue to draw into the space to complement the suspended shapes above. With this drawing she is introducing a pictorial element into her sculpture. The three quarter circle is a pleasing shape and as a devise it is meant to ‘fix’ the sculpture while the other elements play out their roles around it. Although we have this fixed structure, the elements deny any sort of stability within the composition as they continue to break up the space and introduce passages of movement. As we look at the sculpture it takes on some of the properties of the vase/face illustration (fig 1) i.e. the piece has an ambiguous aspect as it fluctuates between the pictorial and the structural.


Painted Steel
235 x 78 x 62 cm
Photograph courtesy of king street gallery


At this time King seemed to be switching her energies between small table pieces and larger works like Limbari. The change in scale was not just a matter of enlarging what she had previously achieved in her smaller works, but rather it was about matching the scale to new ideas. Limbari and a similar piece called Saranang both from 1999 have their scale determined by the idea of making elongated sculptures that appear to have a perpetual upward motion. Limbari is a tall sculpture that invites the eye to travel upwards following the undulations of its vertical, elongated shapes. Unlike her previous work where the eye usually travels around a complete circumference, here King has produced an open-ended sculpture where each of the ‘fronds’ occupy separate, discrete space and float upwards like the fronds of kelp floating free of the sea bed. The vertical motion is emphasised by the weight of material at the base. Apart from giving the sculpture stability this material lends visual weight to the piece providing contrast with the liberated, vertically floating shapes.

These floating, free form shapes can be linked back to what she was doing in earlier works like Song for Sophie and Descant where she was able to negate the heavy structural quality of steel and transform it into something light and plastic. In her earlier sculptures these shapes were redolent of drapery but here the effect is almost uncanny, it is hard to think of it as steel at all, although in no-way has she tried to disguise it. It is one of those phenomena where the piece does transcend the material allowing us to glimpse into another world.

Painted Steel
222 x 89 x 57 cm

Palinura 1999
Black zinc plated steel
20 x 66 x 28 cm

Palinura (1999) is a piece that demonstrates just how much King is working within the tradition of the plastic arts. She has used forged, constructed and found elements to make something that is reminiscent of a Rodin assemblage. Rodin was the consummate modeller and from time to time he would try something different, combining a figure with something utilitarian like a pot or flask, to invoke a different sensibility. With these experiments he achieved some quite unpredictable results some of which work as interesting compositions. Palinura is a composite of different techniques. There is the constructed upturned container from which extends an elongated modelled form, which in turn is supported both physically and visually by two forged rods. Although King is combining different techniques the overall effect is an emphasis on the modelling. Like Rodin’s assemblage the combination highlights the modelling by contrasting it with other disparate elements.


Auguste Rodin, Assemblage: Female torso and antique pot. 1895-1905
  "Although King is combining different techniques the overall effect is an emphasis on the modelling. Like Rodin’s assemblage the combination highlights the modelling by contrasting it with other disparate elements."

Titian: Danae Receiving the Goldern Rain 1553 Prado Museum

Painted Steel
210 x 233 x 116 cm
Collection, University of Technology, Sydney

In 2000 Jan King travelled to Europe, visiting the Hermitage in St Petersburg where she saw Titian’s painting Danae. This work inspired her to do a translation on her return to Australia, but before she began work on the piece she did some research, via reproductions, on the version in the Prado, which she had seen years earlier, and came to the conclusion that this version worked better compositionally than the one in the Hermitage. This indicates just how much thought goes into the composition of her pieces.

Titian based his painting on the Greek myth of Danae who was the daughter of Acrisius king of Argos. Acrisius decided to lock his daughter up in an inaccessible tower to deter potential lovers, but Zeus, who was always on the lookout for beautiful young mortals, discovered Danae and entered her chamber as a shower of gold.

With her sculpture Danae, King has not so much appropriated imagery from Titian’s painting as used elements from it as abstract content. For instance, the sculpture reproduces the framing aspect of the fabric of the canopy with its solid pleats, and she has captured the pose of Titian’s nude with softly modelled reclining elements. Cylinders are used to indicate the cushions supporting the figure and another cylinder placed at the opposite end of the sculpture indicates the roll of fabric where Danae rests her foot. King is working in an intuitive way and the references may not always be obvious. She is not trying to reproduce the painting in some schematic form, this would be merely design, but what she is trying to reproduce, is the evocative nature of Titian’s painting. The acquiescent Danae with her thighs slightly parted, the tension displayed in the muscles of the servant’s back and forearms as she vainly attempts to prevent the gold particles from reaching their goal, the black clouds rolling in from the distance, and the explosion of light and gold, are all things in the painting that King has responded to. One of the most important aspects of the sculpture is the void that she has maintained at the centre of the piece. This void is pregnant with the tension imparted by the surrounding elements, suggesting a state of heightened awareness and expectation. It also introduces a temporal aspect, a suggestion of renewal and potential for future development.


Asavari 1997-2000
Oiled steel
40 x 37 x 21 cm


Asavari (1997-2000) at first glance appears to be a very predictable sculpture following King’s predilection for nested forms, but as with Palinura she has gone that one step further. The sculpture presents a familiar circular format with a plate that curves back into the upright section with a complementary hook shape that sits just under it. The sculpture could have been concluded there but to give the sculpture more of an ‘edge’ she has introduced a heavy piece of rod which is curved at both ends. This section sits at the outer limit of the sculpture and although it refers to the overall shape of the piece it appears to be somewhat independent, generating its own space. At the top it echoes the other hooked shapes but at the bottom the hook is turned out, away from the centre, thus creating an alternative circular movement. This device introduces tension into the sculpture or what could be described as uncertainty, a word that could also describe our response to an assemblage by Rodin.


From the studio of Leonardo da Vinci
Leda 1510 -15
Oil on panel, 112 x 86 cm
Galleria Borghese, Rome


Jan King has described in an interview how the subject for Leda (2001) just came to her, in other words the seed had already been sown during her reading of ancient mythology, or maybe through an encounter with one of the masterpieces of Renaissance art, Leda, attributed to the studio of Leonardo da Vinci. King’s predilection for sensuous forms seem to connect into the past as if she was tapping into the Zeitgeist of the Renaissance where artists like Leonardo were in the process of exploring new forms of naturalism. The painting Leda, is all about sensuous forms. It is the classic nude pose combined with the overt lasciviousness of the swan (Zeus in disguise) that makes the image so compelling.

In King’s sculpture there are two distinct shapes joined together by bands of metal that entwine and caress. The shapes are very simple but their combined abstract qualities suggest a lot. For instance, it seems that before our very eyes, the floating, billowing form is in the process of ‘becoming’ the swan. It is a form full of potent energy. The figure of Leda represented by a twisted section of angle iron, is lithe and sensuous and turns away from the billowing form, thus mimicking the composition of the painting where Leda’s head is turned away from the probing beak of the swan. This sculpture won the Woollahra small sculpture prize in 2001, a deserved winner because it is a potent example of just how much meaning can be conveyed by abstract sculpture if all the contingent elements fall into place.

Leda 2001
Painted steel
71 x 60 x 32 cm
Winner, Woollahra Sculpture Prize 2001
Collection Woollahra Council


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