Isaiah King’s scalding line derives from brash, definitive imprints that survey sexual and desperate incarnations of desire. His characters acknowledge an internal deficit overcome by mental maceration or momentary sexual substitutions. King’s fierce line spans several printing methods most recently, predominantly woodcuts, lithography, and etchings. In balancing a graphic design career with fine art ambitions, King composes earnestly communicative images. They are relatable, recognizable. His vulnerable characters reveal a solidarity among souls consumed by desire.
Lynn Maliszewski Tell me about your upbringing.
Isaiah King I grew up in a really small rural community in Canada and it was very liberal. A lot of hippies from the ’60s who had moved out of the city and settled down were consciously taking on a rural, “fuck the establishment” sort of life. The community was really attractive to artisans, so all my neighbors to this day are wood carvers, printmakers, potters. I went to an arts high school, and I got introduced to everything.
LM What attracted you to printing?
IK Drawing is definitely my strength and my foundation. I do a little bit of painting, but I’ve never felt completely comfortable with it. Printmaking is in some ways an interesting extension of drawing, especially with lithography. It’s direct: you draw on the surface and that’s what you get, but I like the removal of that connection. I love lithography but I also like what printing itself can offer. I like the different individual natures of all the printmaking techniques and what they have to offer, how they define your mark. They initially limit then expand your mark because you have some sort of restriction. It’s not just a pen on paper. You expand your mark-making capabilities even if at first it seems limiting. I also just really like flatness. Even though I work a lot of texture into my images and in the mark making, it all ends up dead flat. I like the reproductive nature of it which I know is always an ongoing debate with snooty artists, painting being the ultimate art form. I also do a lot of small editions and variable editions. Each one is original, each is one-of-a-kind, although there could be eight of them. I also love the process and the actual printing.
LM What’s your favorite printing mechanism right now?
IK Woodcuts. Right at the end of school, I took a woodcut class and absolutely loved it. I like the process because it’s so low-tech, and since I’ve moved here and haven’t had a studio, it’s actually the only printing that I’ve done because I can do it on a small scale. I like the process, but I love the mark.
LM Do you sketch?
IK I do in general, although I’ve found with the woodcuts I sketch less. Most of the woodcuts are based on photos so I draw right onto the block from the photo and then carve, so all the sketching occurs on the block. If I don’t get it right, I keep working on the block until I do. In general, I don’t sketch too much because my work is fairly loose and I like to have that in the final piece. Sometimes I worry about sketching too much, I don’t want to overwork something.
LM There is such a large emotional range in your imagery. You cover the realms of emotional downfall and desperation as well as positive sexual satisfaction. Are these conscious decisions?
IK I rarely come from any sort of theme or concept first. They very much come from just form and drawing. I’m definitely inspired by artists who seem to show emotional extremes or emotional intensity in their work, like Francis Bacon, Egon Schiele, or Käthe Kollwitz. I very rarely have an idea before of what that intensity is that I want to portray.
LM Longing strikes me as the most pertinent, almost unstoppable and unavoidable, emotion in your repertoire.
IK Longing is a good way to express it. It’s a little easier with the more erotic works that may deal with lust, sexual longing, or attraction. I’m fascinated by that kind of sexuality and how that plays into our dynamics. I’m interested in how sexual power helps define our interpersonal relationships. It’s interesting you pinpointed longing because longing can be sexual or not. It can be a lack of something, but our relationships with other people often have some type of longing in it whether it’s something we’re lacking, something we desire, something we want to be. I guess there is a spectrum of that longing which ultimately becomes introspective. Very often, the figures aren’t in any specific defined space so they end up looking alone or isolated, and they’re very often in some state of wanting. What it is, how it defines who you are, how it defines who other people are, and why it’s so powerful are all ideas I’m interested in.
LM What is your attraction to the human form?
IK I think it has so much potential for exploring emotion and different mental states. It’s something we can identify with and that can keep being abstracted or twisted in different ways to convey different things. I think about structure a lot, and that was something I didn’t notice until I put together my website and started organizing my work. I’m really interested in skeletons, bone structure, all that stuff. My figures are a little exaggerated, elongated or skinny, and that’s not any sort of personal preference of skinny versus obese; it’s purely just what I like to draw. I love seeing the bone structure under the skin. The back, the spine, is really interesting.
LM You are also making quite a dent in the graphic design sector. Is your printmaking and design symbiotic?
IK They’re more linked than they are not. In an ideal world they’d be even more meshed. From a concept standpoint, the graphic design is way more challenging. It has to achieve a successful solution that communicates something very specific, and it is always collaborative. That’s a challenge I love. Design process has very specific needs, so you’re pulling from different elements of language and they ultimately cross over in form. All art relates in conjunction to form and space: whether it’s 2D space or in space and time with music and motion, ultimately you’re tackling the same problems. I’m really interested in communication and that’s why I went into graphic design—it’s the art of communication. I like my personal works to engage the viewer in some sort of way, start some sort of dialogue ideally, and that’s the same with my graphic design work.
LM Tell me about Agitproject.
IK Agitproject is my little side project that encourages discussion of current political social issues. The idea behind it is very simple: use tools of design to engage the public to the same caliber and level that advertising does right now—ubiquitous, so in your face, it’s everywhere. I’m not vehemently anti-advertising, I think it’s a logical extension of commerce. I believe if the debate on issues that actually effect people and their community, lives, and neighbors had the same amount of face time/air time as these private interests then we’d have a more informed public. We’d have a more robust and intelligent debate on important issues. There are a lot of people in graphic design that think about these things. A lot of my mentors do a huge amount of pro-bono work, and there’s a real philosophy in graphic design about this because our industry tends to be so linked to commerce that everybody thinks all we do is advertising. Agitproject is trying to make discussions of important issues really hip, look really good.
LM What are some of your inspirations or influences right now?
IK I’ve been inspired by this Haiti project I’ve been working on. It’s the first time I’ve collaborated with anyone. It’s not a true collaboration in the sense that we’re not fusing to create a new work but they’re all based off of Q. Sakamaki’s photographs. It’s been really inspiring working with him, talking with him. It’s a small show, only seven pieces. I’ve never even worked in a series before, working in that new way has been really inspiring. I’m working with incredible material from this photographer and seeing new ways to approach projects such as this. Seeing stuff can also still blow my mind. I’m still inspired by the old Masters—I have my books, I flip through them all the time, and I never get sick of it. I definitely get discouraged sometimes when I go around to openings and see lots of shit, but I wouldn’t stop going to galleries. That’s ridiculous. My influences are so broad I’m really not particularly picky when it comes to art. I can find inspiration in a lot of places and then of course the design world opens up to a whole other world of influence.
Isaiah King’s orgasmic lines spiral into extremes, narrating the internal monologue of desire. Straying from specific scenes or narratives, his characters are locked in isolation. Independent subjects meld into the deceit of their thoughts. Fantasies of satisfaction allow the figures to evade the world and elude the viewer. Self Portrait (dripping) portrays a singular image of the artist cloaked in streaming trickles of coal. Sinking eyes summon the figure to the shadows with a quiet strength, accelerating a path toward absolution or complete disappearance. Congregation (2005) highlights the chaotic group mentality clinging to indecipherable speech and assumptions. Droning on for what appear to be miles of countryside, the souls meld into a gray blob of derisive consciousness, a militant trudge through blotched ideals. King’s figures are crushed by their unquenchable thirsts and wander into aimless decrepitude.
Although similarly unknowable, King’s erotic figures provide respite from introspective downfalls. They are infused with a distinct energy, speaking to the positive effects of ambition, attraction, and confidence that may result from desire. King allows these carnal figures to be empowered, transcending nakedness with a confidence and unmistakeable sexual prowess. In Reclining Nude (2007), a full-frontal female reclines in sensual synergy. She is quiet and content, rendered in black and white with sealed eyes. She purrs from within the confines of her body, a compositional experiment that allows sinuous line to eclipse vulgarity. Self Portrait (2008) is a candid portrayal of vibrancy even amidst a distraction off the page demanding the figure’s complete attention. The background gyrates with sparks of movement, insinuating an intimate strip-tease or sun-drenched wiggle in front of a mirror.
King’s most powerful work unveils the paradox between lust and necessity. Whether one wishes a co-worker came in on time or that the mailman separates from his wife, interpersonal interaction consists of unavoidable expectations that translate into an individual’s intimate cravings. In Lust Triptych (2006), three photographs of King’s nude subject immediately pique sexual daydreams. Radioactive yellow and orange washes highlight flayed flesh. Bone structure is presented in bold white strokes, underscoring the juxtaposition between carnal need and the obtuse fantasies her form summons. King’s subjects cut themselves off from the world by indulging in their own diversions in the search for satisfaction. Flaccid figures disregard the need for shelter or food. Mentions of procreative sex are overwhelmed by temptation and raunchy daydreams. King unveils the complications of desire, a uniquely human phenomenon that is the root of all suffering with unparalleled potential for satisfaction.