Clinton King

Transformation is Clinton King's medium of choice. As a painter, he produces a broad range of imagery that is open yet uniquely singular. It's this use of "change as material" that sets his work apart. Techniques range from an unabashed indulgence in blending to a 'matter of fact' application of paint. Often methods are combined with a cryptic liner imagery that borders on the arcane, revealing a soft sensitivity tempered with a clarity of vision.

Clinton at work in his studio.

Clinton at work in his studio.

Interview with Clinton King

Questions by Emily Burns

Hi Clinton, can you tell us a bit about your background and what motivated you to become an artist?
Around the age of eleven I was digging around in my father’s shed when found a large metal spike, the discovery of this tool led to a sudden impulse to hammer it into stone, so I took to a large shale rock in my backyard and began hammering on it. This started out as simple play but ended up lasting hours, in fact I became so engrossed that I donned a battery-powered head lamp and worked into the night. This was perhaps my first true art impulse. Nothing visually significant was created, just a small rough cavity, but on an emotional level it felt strangely numinous.

You studied painting in undergrad, but earned your MFA in sculpture. Can you talk a bit about the transition between disciplines and what brought you back to painting? Do you still make sculptures?
I received my BFA in painting in the late 90’s—that’s when Installation art was at a peak—and shortly after my thesis I assisted the artist Ann Hamilton. Under her influence I stopped painting altogether and would later apply to the SAIC sculpture department. While there, I would make video, sculpture and site specific performances. Unexpectedly, these modes of working were challenged after I moved to Japan in 2006, when I was forced to adapt and scale down my practice. Two years later I left Tokyo to make wall drawings at MASS MoCA for Sol LeWitt. While working I would become inspired by the scale, color, complexity and appeal of the work.

In particular, I was fascinated with Sol’s idea of freedom within boundaries. I began wondering if placing limits on my own practice might lead to deeper developments… I knew that painting had innate boundaries and saw it as a good place to start again… but yes, I still make the occasional sculpture. I’m also experimenting with video and sound. It’s like I cycling through the all the stages again.

Can you walk us through your creative process and planning stages for the paintings? Do you test out ideas and materials or draw before starting?
One of the early obstacles I confront when painting is rigidity, I respond to that problem by allowing a certain amount of chaos to enter, but once the genie is out of the bottle it’s difficult to regulate. A battle of freedom vs. control develops, breaking into a kind of feedback loop. A single painting made this way can become endlessly myopic. I learned to circumvent this obstacle by working on multiple paintings at once. By simultaneously starting and finishing projects I’m kept alert and in the flow. Working like this over long periods of time can produce a kind of ‘spontaneous precision’. My best works are made like this.

The materiality of your work seems to guide their making, rather than an intentional planning process—is this true? 
Yes, this is a good reading of my process. It sounds almost cliché but I try to start each work from absolute zero, which is impossible, I know. As mentioned above, I often make the the starting point as open as possible, and responding to material is one way to do this.

What does oil paint do exactly? Well… it blends, it scrapes, it separates, it often has hairs stuck in it… how do I respond to this? There’s something risky about painting from pure material responses, a lot of bad art is made this way, but when the process takes over the paintings seem to finish themselves. When these paintings are successful they often have a level of lucidity that I find superior to paintings produced from forethought.  

Have you always worked in oil and how does oil on linen satisfy your close attention to the surfaces of your work?
I’ve always worked in oil, it’s more forgiving and versatile, allowing more time for change. It also slows me down which is something I need. The linen was originally a way to unify the works, but I’ve grown to like the texture, the look, and its historical implications.

Are there are any recurring themes that you keep coming back to in your work? What is at the forefront of your mind at the moment?
I often think about mandalas, not so much visually, but the idea that a work of art can represent a cross-section of time, something that can reveal the forces employed in its creation. This is probably why I work in abstraction, I find it more open interpretation and more immediate.

You have made a few bodies of work at 16 x 20 inches. What is it about this size and working in series connected by scale that appeals to you?
I return to this size for multiple reasons, for one it’s just a big enough to hold a complex process, yet small enough to finish relatively quickly. I also prefer this size because it allows me to work on multiple works at once with relative ease… not to mention they are great handheld objects that stack neatly in my studio.

Installation shot from Clinton's solo show  Open Ended  at Transmitter Gallery in Brooklyn.

Installation shot from Clinton's solo show Open Ended at Transmitter Gallery in Brooklyn.

How much of your work never sees the light of day? How often do paintings totally fail, or can these types of moments recycle into finished paintings at a later time?
There’s a movie quote… “60% of the time, it works every time”
That how a painting feels when it “works”,  but in reality my paintings are almost always in a state of failure until they suddenly resolve.  99% of the time they are in a state of constant recycling, but as the failures accumulate more opportunities to respond present themselves. I realize I’m putting a lot of weight on spontaneity, I do in fact repeat techniques as frequently as I investigate new ones. After a while, repetition becomes a new form of change.

Your titles are really unique. Is there a relationship between the titles and a particular series? How do you come up with titles?
I keep a growing list of unusual word pairings on my phone. I capture these “titles” from passing conversations, advertisements, and books. I then couple the titles and paintings based on intuition. Though sometimes a title can jump out of a painting fully formed.

What artists have you looked at the most over the years? Who are you looking at now?
Over the last five years I’ve been interested in the so called “new provisional painters” like Richard Aldrich. I’ve also been turned on by Albert Oehlen and Thomas Scheibitz. Most recently I’m reexamining the so called 20th-century “spiritualist painters”, what does it mean to reveal something hidden?

What have been some of the biggest influences on your life and your work thus far?
My wife and my therapist.

What is a typical day like for you?
I still work part time so I often think in terms of weeks. Personally I find it impossible to paint everyday, so I need space to reset. In reality, painting can be very difficult and frustrating for me, but I live for those good days in the studio. I’ve recently learned that one good hour in the studio can save an entire bad day, that’s an important daily reminder.  

Clinton working in his studio. Photo by Dan McMahon.

Clinton working in his studio. Photo by Dan McMahon.

Can you tell us a bit about your workspace? In some of your process photos, your studio space looks like it has a really low ceiling! Can you tell us about how its peculiarities may or may not have an effect on your work?
Yeah my studio is infamous. I don’t think Jason Stopa will be stopping by for another studio visit anytime soon. I’m 6 feet tall and I sometimes hit my head on it, but amazingly I’ve grown accustomed to going down there. I have multiple rooms, multiple storage spaces, a clean space for viewing and a dirty space for creating. A few years ago I had a residency at Yaddo where the light and the space was amazing, this made returning to “the cave “seem downright depressing.

But when I do go down there everything disappears—the city, the weather.  At first all I hear is the hissing of water pipes, it’s like a pressure cooker down there, after a while things start transforming.

Is there anything that significantly supports or destroys your groove or energy in the studio?
I listen to music almost constantly, but nothing too distracting. The biggest groove killers are phone interruptions. There’s nothing worse than having to stop everything and text with paint on your hands.

Has there ever been a book/essay/poem/film/etc that totally changed or influenced you? What are you reading right now?
Early on I was very influenced by the writing of Carl Jung, I’ve read almost every book he wrote including a large number of the Jungian authors as well. But recently I’ve more into myth and comparative religion. I’m currently on Mircea Eliade’s second book of his “History of Religious Ideas” trilogy. Prior to that book I finished his Rites and symbols of initiation. I find these subjects fascinating.

What do you listen to while you work? Is this an important part of being in the studio?
Its funny, but I can’t listen to lectures or podcasts or anything that requires me to think of anything outside of what I’m doing. I have to be in the moment of creating and the right music can help me stay in this state. That’s why I’m fond of making my own mixtapes.

How important is the place where you live to your studio practice? This could include geographic location, city, neighborhood, community, etc.
Well… NYC makes it possible to work in my studio, enjoy a good studio visit, go to multiple gallery openings, eat a great meal, and spend the night with my wife and cat in a single day.

You have done residencies in Japan and Hong Kong, as well as others, how have residencies affected your work or practice?
Once I made a sculpture in Hong Kong that employed a florescent red light, and unexpectedly, multiple people assumed the work was about a ghosts. Puzzled, I asked why? It was then explained that red light bulbs are associated with ancestral shrines in Hong Kong. I was strange to be blindsided by something as simple as a light bulb. Cultural context helped remind me that Interpretation is not completely subjective, art often communicates on a collective level.

Any advice from your past that has stuck with you or helped you?
It’s possible to believe in something—emotionally, mentally, and spiritually—and still be dead wrong.

What is one of the biggest challenges to being a working artist?
The day I learn to exploit my own self doubt will be the day that I truly master my art practice.

How do you view technology and social media and has any particular platform or tool impacted you as an artist?
With some technologies we seem to simultaneously gain something and lose something—like a deal with the devil. Sure, I see more art with Instagram, and more people see my art, but at the same time it compresses and formats everything. I also hate equating quality with the number of “likes” and followers. It’s enough to make you question if it’s really a liberating force for artists.

What is one of the best exhibitions you have seen recently?
I just got back from The Museum of Jurassic Technology, in LA, and they have an exhibition on superstitions that is bizarre and thoroughly thought provoking.

Besides art, what are some of the things that interest you or that you enjoy the most?
I practice Aikido, visit a Zendo, have my dreams analyzed at the C.G. Jung Institute, I belong to a Masonic lodge, and I like to play drums. I’m always curious, that’s why I’m an artist. I find unity there, it helps me balance my life, so if I had to choose it’s safe to say that I enjoy making Art the most.

Do you have any news, shows, residencies or projects coming up?
Last year was a slow period for shows, but a great time to explore.

That being said, I currently have a sound piece playing in the “sound corridor” at Various Small Fires in LA. I’m also working on a ten-year long video project that is now approaching it’s sixth year. So yeah, I’ve been trying new things. I have a few painting shows developing on the horizon too, hopefully you will hear about those soon.

Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us!
Thank you, the pleasure was mine.

To find out more about Clinton and his work, check out his website.