Susan Te Kahurangi King’s current exhibition marks her second, highly anticipated solo show at Andrew Edlin, following the critically acclaimed debut of the New Zealand-based artist with the space in 2014, Drawings from Many Worlds. Known for her vibrant and frenetic biomorphic abstractions, Drawings 1975 - 1989 curated by Chris Byrne and Robert Heald features a lesser known series from her prolific and consistently impressive practice (spanning thousands of works over the majority of her 65 years). While more minimal, understated, and pattern-based than King's earlier work, this selection of graphite, colored pencil, and crayon drawings is just as captivating.
Without any distinct imagery visible from a distance, King's works initially resemble faded topographical maps, hand-drawn in subdued colors; this quiet and unassuming aesthetic is a quality shared with Alessandra Michelangelo's exhibition at Shrine, another compelling Chris Byrne curatorial project. While engaging with King’s (or Michelangelo’s) drawings, the viewer is immediately struck by their incredible originality and depth. Whereas Michelangelo's impact is defined by a striking, beautiful strangeness, King’s is the result of the inexplicable power of certain passages to provide glimpses into the enigmatic world her work inhabits.
Closer inspection of King’s work reveals disorienting allover compositions crowded within the confines of the surfaces, often emphasizing the torn corners or existing stains on found paper. Curator Chris Byrne interviewed Susan’s sister, Petita Cole, for the artist’s recently released monograph The Drawings of Susan Te Kahurangi King. Cole provides valuable insight into King’s process, which is driven by memory and imagination:
The ways she starts and finishes her drawings to some extent may depend on the type and condition of paper used. When starting with a totally clean sheet of paper she may approach it in one of many ways, including starting from the bottom corner, spreading in a radial manner, or making quick broad strokes spanning the entire drawing surface. Sometimes her drawings totally devour the white of the page, while other times figures may be left suspended with plenty of space to spare...sometimes she creates a number of starting points around the edge of the page. Building from each one in turn, often interchanging the pencils or pens used at each of the starting points, working from the outer edge inward, the drawing closing in on itself, not unlike the shutter of a camera. If the paper selected is already marked, whether it be a crease, stain, image, or mark of any kind, Susan often uses these as her starting point. At times she has picked up other peoples’ discarded drawings, old invoices, envelopes, cereal boxes, all manner of things, responding to each in a unique way.
King’s highly inventive engagement of drawing is one in which she is proficient in rendering living form, but doesn’t prioritize this over any other use of line while implementing a wide range of approaches - non hierarchical transitions from loose, meandering marks to economical yet perfectly descriptive lines, to simplistic doodles that loop-de-loop, to tiny, scattered dashes, all blend together across a confounding continuum. King’s complex pictorial spaces become aerial views of alien landscapes or subterranean caverns populated with peculiar, shape-shifting cave-dwellers that tumble through space or slowly reveal themselves as mounds of body parts embedded in the foundation. Bugs Bunny is and is not at once, surrounded by fragments of reiterated information (as if numerous versions of the same animated still have been chopped up and cobbled together) - a contorted mass that never quite becomes coherent. In these moments, cartoon imagery is portrayed as organic phenomena comprised of definite limbs, visages, phalluses, white gloves, or duck bills, depicted in various degrees of loosely suggested form.
A true visionary, King's appropriation and transmutation of cartoon imagery predates the postmodernist musings of Paul McCarthy, Sue Williams’ psychedelic masses of appendages and internal organs, and Arturo Herrera’s amorphous mash-ups. Her conceptual investigations of cartoon tropes echo those of Herrera, conjuring memories of familiar pop-culture icons while deftly imposing them upon fragments of unrelated imagery in order to establish new meaning and narratives. An emotional connection to the source remains intact, yet the familiar is disguised and disfigured to an unsettling degree, often envisioning dark, latent tendencies of benign Disney or Warner Brothers characters. King and Herrera further distort and collage significant characters into subsequent works, expanding upon their rich personal lexicons. King’s oeuvre has developed in a similar trajectory to Herrera's; the overloaded networks of information characteristic of earlier work have become increasingly minimal and abstract over time.
The magic of King’s intricate drawings lies in the sense that she lives within the picture plane, an explorer traversing each ordinary sheet of paper to unearth its fantastical potential. At times her choices are relatable (even careless) and at others describe complex visual concepts with virtuosity. Certain moments, such as the detail below (representing a one inch wide section of this drawing) offer a revelatory confrontation with what it means to live for the practice of drawing - a heap of impossibly small and mysterious forms, nearly lost during the process of mark-making.
King's choice to stop speaking at a very young age provides an important insight into her biography; from that point on art-making became her primary mode of communication. A lack of verbal language is commonly misunderstood as evidence of a deficiency (in ability or intelligence) to communicate, in a broad linear sense. For many with developmental disabilities, verbal language is difficult or prohibitively counter-intuitive, but it’s clear in the way that this challenge is engaged that it’s just a small aspect of the broader endeavor to communicate. Choosing to be non-verbal in these cases isn’t an exercise in discipline, but a matter of leaving language behind, perhaps because it isn’t found to be useful or sufficiently effective. It becomes a way of asserting control over how one is understood and requiring interpretation through other means. When artists make this decision, their works become, in a very genuine and profound way, a much greater portion of the total sum of their expressions, not only as artists but as people. Meeting Susan for the first time at the opening of this exhibition, this effect was clear and immediate; she was present, but these drawings are her voice.
Drawings 1975 - 1989 is on view at Andrew Edlin Gallery in NYC through October 30th and runs concurrently with her first solo museum retrospective at the ICA in Miami. King’s work has previously been shown at the Outsider Art Fair in New York and Paris and Robert Heald Gallery in Wellington, New Zealand. Her work is in the collections of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Wallace Arts Trust in Auckland.