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Arts + CultureArtJ.L. King's bold, curious art doesn't shy from the...

J.L. King’s bold, curious art doesn’t shy from the peculiar

'Weird can be good, to me,' says the San Francisco oil painter, who calls her spirited art 'trick the mind.'

The work of painter J.L. King is at once amusing, detailed, and a bold display of well-honed technique. But what is also evident in her work are narratives that are introspective, curious, and elevating—images that make us ask questions, make us laugh and want more.

King was born in San Francisco and raised in the Bay Area and is a second-generation San Franciscan of mixed ethnicity. Her mother is Chinese American, and her father is African American. She currently lives in the Potrero Hill neighborhood of San Francisco.

When she was very young, she attended art classes with her mother and acting performances with her father, sometimes being included with a small part in some of his plays. Her parents’ engagement in the arts was her first exposure to what it means to live a creative life.

“I was not raised going to art galleries or museums, but I’ve stayed imaginative my whole life, finding different creative outlets,” King told 48hills. 

King has seven brothers and sisters but is the only one from the union of her parents. She says that her biracial ethnicity gave her a strong sense of isolation growing up but nurtured a very active imagination that she has retained into adulthood. 

JL King, ‘Behind The Seen,’ 2021. Oil on linen

In adulthood, when King found herself single with a young child and experiencing major life changes, she began to explore painting as an expressive medium. To sharpen her talent, King attended three classes through UC Berkeley Extension in the early 2000s, consulted books and countless articles, and discovered an insatiable appetite for learning. 

“When I began taking art classes, I just wanted to learn how to paint. No specific goals in mind. Everything seemed to happen fluidly. If I became dissatisfied with the progress of my painting, I took another class,” King said. 

She feels that the Bay Area art community is genuinely interested in the artists behind the art, and though she sees various pockets of individual communities within the whole, she is enjoying getting to know each one of them and finding her place in it. She carefully considers the qualities of being “different” when she creates her paintings, tending towards the idiosyncrasies in people, things, and even places. 

“Weird can be good, to me. And when I hear a person describe the peculiar qualities in my work that they are attracted to in explainable and sometimes unexplainable ways, I feel a genuine connection with them,” she said. 

With four children of her own now, King sees the world through their eyes, experiencing things in a youthful and curious way, which she says has always been an inspiring and common theme in all her work. 

“Otherness and ethnic ambiguity are common threads as they are familiar to me. When someone taps into some of these qualities in my work then perhaps there is a sense of being understood and seen, a sense of connection, not just with the work, but with me. That feels good,” King said.

JL King, ‘Stealthy Resplendence,’ 2020. Oil on canvas

The figures in King’s paintings mostly appear faceless, in fact their heads replaced with a round object such as an olive, a flower, or reflective glass orb, rendering them strangely anonymous. Her intention is to guide the viewer to look at the whole scene for information, to not be satisfied with an immediate answer that a facial expression might provide.

“I feel like it’s easier to connect to the figure without the face. I also prefer to elevate creatures and objects that may be ignored, mundane, and not necessarily exciting in most cases, and draw attention and interest to them. Like a fly, snails, torn paper, and the like,” she said.

King is always in search of new subjects. She looks for the beauty and intriguing features in things. She says that seeking out awe every day is an important act to her and that she can usually find that in nature, even if that nature is in an urban environment, and maybe, especially so, she adds.

Her studio is located at the Arc Gallery and Studios in SoMa, where she has created since 2017. She arrives in the morning, opens her skylights, turns on an air purifier, and scrolls through podcasts to accompany her as she works. Next, King prepares her brushes and writes a list of tasks to finish in a current painting, aiming to complete the list by the end of the day. 

Working in oils on linen, King often stretches her own canvases and frames most completed work herself. She says she knows when a piece is done once the composition is in place but not necessarily when all the paint has been laid down. She signs a painting at that point even if the piece has not been fully rendered. 

“My paintings always start out as a rough sketch mapping out where the key parts will go. When I’m fleshing it out, I’ll add more to the piece in order to create a certain tone. I can ‘hear’ my paintings when they are finished, it’s a type of synesthesia,” she said. King learned the term a few years ago and was relieved to know there was an actual word and concept for this experience she was having with her work.

JL King, ‘Student Master,’ 2023. Oil on linen

King’s studio doors open up to a two storied room with a group of paintings at the entrance before climbing a flight of stairs to reach the mezzanine. Her walls are covered with works from over the years and a large black leather couch in the seating area where she holds studio visits. Natural light streams in from two open skylights but her primary workspace is a darker nook in a corner, where she does most of her planning and painting.

In front of her easel are a small collection of toys (Lego sculptures, Bob Ross, and Mr. Rogers figures) given to King by her kids as a source of inspiration. A few early photos of King and her parents are also in the space and eliminate the “what are you?” questions from visitors, she says.

Having become engulfed in the painting process early on, King says she experienced a strong sense of fulfillment whenever she completed a piece and wanted to repeat that same sensation. She first showed her work in a group show at the Potrero branch of the San Francisco Public Library in 2013, during a time in which she was avidly exploring different artists and concepts in painting.

“I remember feeling very vulnerable and worried that someone would make me feel bad about this piece I created and loved. Until one person came up to me and asked me about it. I think I was hooked at that point. After hearing this person describe things in my painting that they saw, how they interpreted it, and pointing out details that they noticed, I knew that I wanted to experience more of that,” King said.

Participation in Open Studios was next, and joining Artspan to see if she wanted to pursue art professionally. And she discovered that Surrealism and Imaginative Realism were the genres she was most attracted to.

“When I was learning to paint, I felt awe whenever I viewed well rendered trompe l’oeil art which made me want to paint like that also. So, I began blending the two styles. I called it ‘trompe L’esprit’—trick the mind,” King said.

As King’s desire to paint grew stronger, it became difficult to work from home, and she says her ideas turned into obsessive thoughts. Because she had young children and a full-time job as a healthcare worker, she could only paint for a few hours in the evenings in her bedroom—until the perfect opportunity opened up at Arc Gallery and Studios that allowed her to rent her first art space. 

“It took my family some getting used to the first year or two. I became very busy, creating work for gallery exhibits and commissions non-stop,” she said.

King says she was learning how to function as “a one-woman show”—creating work and networking for gallery exhibitions, conducting sales, producing all of the marketing and social media, building relationships with other artists and trying to be a good “art citizen.” 

JL King, ‘Down The Line,’ 2023. Oil on linen

King has worked with several local galleries and shown her work nationally. She landed her first solo exhibit in 2022 at Luna Rienne Gallery in the Mission District titled Assorted Flavors—a series of works in a food-based theme with a twist. King was also featured in the first and second de Young Open exhibitions of the de Young Museum (2020 and 2023) as well as a digital show during the Alice Neel exhibit there in 2022.

“That has been a huge thrill for me. I would love to have official representation with a gallery that is a mutually beneficial professional relationship, like a partnership. It feels like a fairly lonely business otherwise,” King said.

The arc of King’s work has moved from simpler compositions to more complex. Putting too much emphasis on symbology became a task to avoid for the artist and she tries not to over-analyze her work.

“I just don’t like to view my work like that, it takes all the wonder out of it. I like to see my work as a place I haven’t fully explored, that there is still more to find there,” she said.

King believes current events likely have an effect on her subject matter though not always in an obvious way but rather in a more instinctive or visceral manner. She recently finished a piece for her family of a box of Ferrera Pan Lemonhead candy that includes portraits of her two sons. What is different in the piece is the fact that she painted their faces.

“The painting is entirely about these two goofballs so that is why their faces are front and center. I wanted to create a piece that would make people laugh or smile every time they took the time to really look at it. I take humor in my art pretty seriously,” King said. 

On her easel now is a piece she is creating for the group show, Precious Metals, for the Modern Eden Gallery on Sutter Street, opening on March 16. She says she is looking forward to the challenge that comes with painting metal realistically. King’s work has shown annually at the gallery in addition to regular exhibits at Luna Rienne Gallery, Stone Sparrow NYC Gallery, and Brassworks Gallery in Portland, Oregon.

J L King’s work is a collaborative experience once the works are shared. She would like people to experience her work like it’s a trip, or as a tapping into a state of hyperphantasia, since that is how she views her work before and after it is created.

“I’m entertained by the personal narratives that viewers share with me. I really like seeing people amused and then contemplative about my work. Not in that particular order. Humor is important to me in my art, but the works are more complex than that if some time is taken to look a little longer,” she said.

For more information, visit her website at jlkingart.com and on Instagram @j.l.kingart.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

Mary Corbin
Mary Corbin
Mary Corbin is an artist and writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She can’t get enough vivid colors, walks in the woods and well-told tales. She recently published her first nonfiction book. Visit her website at marycorbinwrites.com.

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