Each year the nonprofit Clifton Cultural Arts Center sponsors a juried exhibition. The first-place winner receives a Golden Ticket, redeemable for a solo exhibition. Last year Ct King nabbed it and cashed it in for “Ct King: Dangerous Little Strangers.”
This year’s Golden Ticket is not as shiny as in the past because of the COVID-19 pandemic. King’s opening on July 24, 2020, was by RSVP only, and only 25 viewers were allowed in the gallery at a time. Appointments were required to visit the gallery during the run of the show, which closed on August 21, 2020. This was all unfortunate as it was an exhibition well worth seeing.
In “Dangerous Little Strangers,” who are these “strangers”? Are they foreigners or aliens? Are they “strange” in unsettling ways? They are all women, some beautiful, others grotesque. It might appear that King is a misogynist when he is anything but. His women are fierce and powerful, courageous and strong. They have what the artist calls a “bad ass attitude.”
They live in “Ct Carnivaland” that’s been described as “whimsically creepy with undertones of an underground urban landscape.” Where is Ct Carnivaland? Here and there. Anywhere and everywhere. It’s another place, another planet, another galaxy. It’s in the past, the present, the future. Ct Carnivaland slips fluidly through time and space.
“Dangerous Little Strangers” features a new body of work by King who was born in 1973: “Femme Fatales reconstruction.” They are “spies and assassins that infiltrate and dominate Ct Carnivaland.” I interpreted “reconstruction” to be akin to Picasso’s Cubist women, but instead of rearranged features, King’s changes are superficial, even cosmetic, which is an observation not a criticism.
The faces of King’s “Femme Fatales” and the earlier series “Lost Women” are clipped from fashion magazines. Some of the stunners (he favors sloe-eyed beauties with half-smiles) are essentially untouched, but others he’s reconstructed: “whitewashing” the faces, turning their lips into slashes of crimson, giving them mouthfuls of tiny decayed and broken teeth.
King’s women engage you, daring you to look away, whether they are gorgeous or monstrous. Their heavily mascaraed eyes that are never altered mesmerize you, seduce you, entice an unsuspecting you to their beds to extract your secrets. And when they succeed, they knife you (more intimate than a gun) or leave you abandoned and disoriented in Ct Carnivaland.
When I made my first circuit of “Dangerous Little Strangers,” my impression was that I was surrounded by a congregation of ghoulish women. But here and there were some faces, more than I thought, that were quite lovely, barely touched, such as in Canary Trap. Here an exquisite woman wears a transparent mercurochrome-colored Lone Ranger-style mask. Her penetrating gaze is fixed on the viewer.
Running beneath her is a band of revelers, white-faced with lumps of coal for eyes. An orchestra on the left provides music for a female performer doing a stiff-armed, Egyptian-like dance. On the right the audience is dressed to the nines except for a figure wearing a horizontally striped, black-and-white sweater or jersey. Is he an escaped prisoner or a French sailor? What does this affectless woman have to do with a cabaret scene from the 1930s in Weimar Germany? As always King leaves the answer to you.
In Tea w/ Mum, a glam 1970s mater wears an elaborately ruffled gown and genteelly sips coffee from a clear cup/mug; a plate of bonbons is in easy reach on the settee. This static vignette is the backdrop for her grownup daughter who’s popped up like Jill in the Box. On the frontal plane, her oversized head dominates the composition. A watch, just behind her head, says 10 after 10, but we don’t know whether it’s AM or PM. In any case, she’s turned to the viewer, apparently saying, “Come on. We’re late.”
The artist is obsessed with teeth, pointing out how much they tell about a person. Think about that when you meet someone new.
King’s splendid creatures don’t open their mouths but his bizarre beings belong on posters in a dentist’s office as “before” photos.
It’s natural that King would present his vision of A Tooth Fairy. He’s given her elfin ears, translucent wings, a pixie haircut, and a molar on a leather thong around her neck. Her lips disappear, revealing a mouthful of teeth crying out for an orthodontist.
The background is a newspaper article about a robbery. That reinforces the artist’s idea that the fairy is a thief. She comes to steal children’s baby teeth, placed hopefully under their pillows. But they wake with the tooth gone (maybe into the fairy’s own mouth) and disappointed that the fairy has left no reward, which is, by the way, $3.70 on average in the US, according to Visa.
Lost Girls , the center panel of a triptych of the same name, is dominated by a dark-haired, pouty-faced beauty; her triceps and biceps are toned like Michelle Obama arms. She’s pushed her head forward to engage anyone who dare challenge her. She radiates power and is the protector of her tribe, the disembodied faces on either side of her.
Paladin #1 and #2 are by her side, loyal lieutenants, knights who have pledged their liege to her.
King’s images are haunting, whether the women are dazzling or horrific. I don’t know what I fear most: being unable to sleep or afraid to sleep because of the nightmares that are sure to come.
–Karen S. Chambers
“Ct King: Dangerous Little Strangers,” closed August 21, 2020. Clifton Cultural Arts Center, 2728 Short Vine, Cincinnati, OH 45219. (513) 497-2860, [email protected]. By appointment. Free.