Becoming Pastoral – Ron Kingswood
Excavo Gallery, London, Ontario, October 2, 2020 – November 14, 2020
“The less there is to look at, the more important it is that we look at it closely and carefully. This is critical to abstract art. Small differences make all the difference.”
― Kirk Varnedoe, Pictures of Nothing: Abstract Art Since Pollock
On one of those recent, warm, late Fall days, while taking a quiet solitary walk through Kiwanis Park, which is not far from where I live, I suddenly became aware of the strong fragrance of cedar. Looking down, I noticed I was in the midst of a thick carpet of dry, brown cedar needles. My eyes travelled upwards, following the long, dark branches that dipped down from the trunks of numerous cedar trees touching the forest floor. I realized that I was standing under a canopy of cedars. Thick and thin branches crossed each other, making intricate patterns of positive and negative spaces. My mind became so captivated by the subtle and elegant movement of shape and line that everything else around me seemed to disappear. The sky, the greenery, even the path I was on – all became blurred for the brief period of time that I stood there lost in shape and line.
In that moment of being transported out of myself in this sudden apprehension of the uncanny beauty of the natural world, I was taken back to the recent exhibition of Ron Kingswood’s paintings at the EXCAVO gallery in London, entitled, Becoming Pastoral. I recalled how Kingswood represented just such an experience, where the play of lines and shapes, so pervasive in nature yet often overlooked, can suddenly capture the imagination when viewed from a particular angle, and become the focus of a painting.
Kingswood is mainly known as a naturalist painter; a path he started on at a very young age. Even then, Kingswood seemed to be responding to an inner calling. “I think it chose me,” he says, hinting at a certain spiritual predilection as he recalls his lifelong interest in birds and subsequent career as a wildlife painter. In this genre he became laudably successful, with his work in the permanent collection of the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Wyoming, frequently being shown in the Birds in Art juried exhibition at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum in Wisconsin, and also being represented by various wildlife art galleries in centres across North American, including Toronto, Santa Fe, and New York.
But at the peak of his success, something changed. Kingswood found himself called in a very different direction in his art making. This time it was a calling that had built up through the years. Kingswood mentions that his first exposure to abstract painting happened when taking an art history course during his two-year study at Beal Tech (now BealArt). He continued to paint as a naturalist for a number of years after that, but since that time he was frequently drawn to museum exhibitions by such abstract artists as Franz Klein, Marc Rothko, and Helen Frankenthal. At some point he found himself asking, “What are these artists doing that I am not getting in my bird paintings?” Such inner questioning persisted through the years until finally, in 2006, Kingswood took an abrupt turn and began to paint only abstract work.
The works exhibited at EXCAVO are from his six-year foray in abstract painting. Although intrigued by the style of artists such as Malevich, Matisse, and Mondrian, Kingswood says. “I wasn’t trying to copy them; I just was drawn to something they were doing in art that spoke to me in a way that my naturalist paintings didn’t.”
Kingswood candidly admits his break from representation and move into abstraction was a period of experimentation and exploration. “I was really stepping into the unknown – feeling in the dark. I would just start with a line or a thought and then gradually something would emerge.” Nature remains a significant element in most of Kingswood’s abstract paintings but instead of the formulaic approach he employed in his wildlife paintings, line and space in nature become his point of entry as he moves beyond the immediacy of object to the non-object world behind.
In works such as Walpole Series – Reeds, Reel Bed #1, and Walpole – Kingswood grounds his painting in his home terrain; the landscape of the rural Elgin and Lambton Counties where he has spent much of his time hunting, fishing and frequently traveling along the county roads of Southwestern Ontario. When the subject for a painting comes into focus now – a small pile of dried sticks, an outcropping of cattails in water, a small isolated bush in snow-white space – they are asymmetrically placed on a section of canvas and held within an off-white textured background, creating an atmosphere of calmness and serenity such as I felt standing under that cedar grove. In these works Kingswood’s love of birds has been replaced by his love of line and the spaces between those lines.
The two large paintings in the exhibition – Twilight on the Nile and The Water Rose and Covered the Mountains – are further extensions of Kingswood’s proclivity for reaching behind the surface of objects in nature for his inspiration. In these two paintings particularly, it is as if Kingswood is standing before his canvas with eyes closed and allowing his senses to speak through his art. He paints what he smells, feels, and hears, and these non-visual impressions are rendered into the shape of mass. In these paintings, line becomes less important and various mass forms dominate. The result is dramatic and unsettling. In Twilight on the Nile, a passionate reddish pink is splashed across the canvas intended to reflect an experience of watching the early morning sun rise over the water while viewed through a bed of reeds. Of his approach to this painting, Kingswood says, “I thought, how can I express that scene, and not be representational? So, I got my gloves on, got out my crayons, and made it as raw as I could get it.”
In two other smaller pieces in the exhibition, both named “Untitled,” Kingswood goes deeper still into abstraction, to the point where even nature seems to be left behind. Truncated, noncommittal lines and awkward incomplete circles placed in arbitrary space are more reminiscent of the early markings of children than of anything in nature. Of these works, Kingswood says, “For a while, I purged myself of the nature theme. It was kind of enjoyable to let myself go. I wanted to be unpredictable in a way and do the unexpected, even for me. I tried to tease the edges of what feels like the visible.”
In 2012, the spell that abstract painting held over Kingswood for six years was suddenly broken, and he turned his palette once again to more representational wildlife painting. Kingswood does not regret his time as an abstract painter. “So I came out of it a much stronger [naturalist] painter,” he says, “looking at representational work totally differently.” Indeed, people who collect Kingswood’s wildlife paintings and wildlife collectors in general are well-favoured with Kingswood’s more mystical and substantially arresting paintings in that style. But the abstract paintings exhibited at the Excavo Gallery are undeniable “outrageous” in their boldness, each executed with a fervent commitment to groping and probing, trying this and that, passionately searching for the moreness of things behind what is on the surface in nature. During his six years as an abstract painter, Kingswood pointed his art in the direction that has been, and remains, the primary path of contemporary artist since Monet. From the works shown at the Excavo Gallery, Kingswood is presented as remaining unrelentingly in his intention as an abstract painter.
Reviewed by Nida Home Doherty, Senior Writer for Centred.
Images displayed courtesy of the artist and Excavo Gallery