COTUIT -- When Kevin King agreed to have a one-person show at Chapman Art Gallery, he joked that visitors might walk in and think it was a group exhibition. And as the actual show makes clear, the North Falmouth artist is indeed an eclectic talent. "The Many Sides of Kevin King," a lively overview of his approaches, mediums and subjects over some two decades, will run from Saturday, May 20, through Sunday, June 4.
First and foremost, King is a painter, working in oils, with his style ranging from nonrepresentational, as in the mixed-media piece "Theo-Logic, Entropy Theory," to the polished realism of the landscape "Naushon Meadow." If there's a commonality to his work, it's a strong tendency to reference the natural world, a certain philosophical bent and a spirit of adventure in exploring unconventional materials.
As this exhibition of some 20 paintings indicates, one of King's trademarks is his rather frequent use of ash in place of more conventional pigments. Mixing it with oil painting medium and resin, he has used lily ash to paint lilies, book ash to paint books and rope ash to paint rope. "What's the difference between taking something from the ground and using ash?" he says. "Instead of rendering something with charcoal or pencil -- instead of burning wood -- you're using the actual substance."
With a painting of daylilies, King painted the entire picture in gray with lily ash before deciding the blossoms themselves demanded to be a true-to-life orange. The effect is borderline surrealistic, as if life were valiantly persisting in some apocalyptic scorched earth. In "Flag 9/11 #3" -- the only work in the show that's not for sale -- the artist used ash from Ground Zero to paint an American flag that floats, Jasper Johns-like, against a gritty, mottled background. More than anything, King has painted fish -- so far about 50 -- using ash from fish cremated in ceramist-wife Frances Johnson's raku burner. And "I haven't closed the book on it yet," he says. The Chapman Art Gallery show features a good selection of his fish paintings, including mackerel, shark and several pieces from his recent series of flying fish.
King's reverence for nature is also evident in his "Bio-Logic Leaf" series, where large-as-life leaves (the artist thinks they're from indoor banana plants) float in luminous space, their crinkly, curving forms rendered with sculptural beauty. "Geo-Logic #2," a somewhat stylized Middle Eastern landscape of arid mountains and ravines, was painted with Red Sea sediment. "Three Stones" features a trio of smooth, blue-green pebbles, painted with almost trompe-l'oeil clarity against a glowing field of yellow and red. Several steam-like lines "rising" from the stones add to the impression of heat and fire. With images of a pigeon, butterfly, school of fish and, perhaps, the moon moving over a celestial Earth, "Natural History" conveys the idea of a planet teeming with varied life as it spins in space.
Among King's most recent works is a reproduction of "La Bella Principessa" ("The Beautiful Princess"), a drawing some experts have attributed to Leonardo da Vinci. "It just captivated me," King says. "He did it in colored chalk and ink, and I'm doing it in oil. You learn so much from copying what someone else has done." On the other hand, he wasn't timid about introducing his own touch to the Renaissance portrait. "I added a butterfly on the girl's braid," he says.
While honoring the past, King continues to explore new territory. With another new piece, "14th Street," he experimented with the interplay between twirls of dripped resin and areas of painted color. At first it was simply an abstract painting, but King decided it needed something extra. Representational elements appeared as the words "14th Street" popped into his head; and then he imagined a businessman waiting at a subway and a graffiti-inspired rat. "It's like music," he says. "I just let it be what it wanted to be."
Born and raised in Pittsfield, King has lived on the Cape since 1972, when he became a foreign car mechanic in Falmouth. (It "only made sense" after graduating from college with a degree in education, he says, tongue firmly in cheek.) He has also traveled the world as a master research technician in oceanography on research vessels and supported his family for two decades as a graphic artist. In addition, he created and produced the 2004 award-winning documentary "Troubled Water," concerning contaminated drinking water on Cape Cod, and wrote the 2010 novel "Bird of Passage," a self-published fictionalized memoir based on his first expedition tracking sharks with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution scientist Dr. Frank Carey.
"There's the world of art, and then there's the world of commerce," King says. "I make a living doing other things, so, with my art, it's following a path with painting things I really want to paint. I don't have a strategic plan -- it doesn't get boring. I go with things until I run out of interest in what I'm doing."
Chapman Art Gallery is located at 5 Main St., directly across Route 28 from the Cahoon Museum of American Art. Hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. More information may be obtained by calling (508) 681-8170, or by visiting the gallery's website at www.chapmanartgallery.com