Rejecting a Culture of Light: Black Faces in 3D Portraiture

Percy C. King, a former defensive backer for The Ohio State University, has made his artistic career in portraiture centering on Black icons like Redman, LeBron James, and Prince. Because of this, he was commissioned by the Columbus Museum of Art to create portraits of Columbus artists Aminah Robinson, William Hawkins, Kojo Kamau, and Elijah Pierce.


Tomás Miriti Pacheco, He/His


Percy C. King sitting next to some of his paintings (Credit: Twitter/@PercyKing6)

Percy C. King, a former defensive backer for The Ohio State University, has made his artistic career in portraiture centering on Black icons like Redman, LeBron James, and Prince. Because of this, he was commissioned by the Columbus Museum of Art to create portraits of Columbus artists Aminah Robinson, William Hawkins, Kojo Kamau, and Elijah Pierce. His style is easiest identified by his medium: birch plywood, Masonite, and compressed particle board. These materials point to the unorthodox nature of the works; King makes cutouts of the materials and then layers them in order to create a 3D image of the artists’ faces. This spatial arrangement has several consequences for the lighting and shading of his subjects, and through these stylistic choices King prioritizes the Blackness of the cultural icons he portrays.


His style is easiest identified by his medium: birch plywood, Masonite, and compressed particle board.

This is visible primarily through King’s approach to light. At first glance, the portraits have an almost cartoonish quality to them, in which the lighter-toned birch plywood used to show where light hits the subject’s face jumps dramatically outward and the many lines of the face are outlined in black. However, these are intentional consequences of King’s technique. The plywood appears prominent because, layered on top, it is the portion of the piece physically closest to the viewer. In this way, King takes the ephemeral lighting of the subjects’ faces and makes it physical, necessary for the image to be whole. The lines of their faces are created by the negative space between each cutout leading backward into the ‘canvas’, itself another piece of wood. This technique is responsible for much of the ‘black’ space within the work, the cutouts themselves being mostly shades of brown. In this way, King immediately shapes the lighting of the portrait whereas its shading is created by the light of the room where it hangs.


These choices serve to subvert what film critic Richard Dyer describes as “culture of light.”

These choices serve to subvert what film critic Richard Dyer describes as “culture of light.” In his text Light of World, Dyer highlights the way in which “Western society is characterized by the albeit troubled centrality of vision to knowledge” (106). The main consequence of this centrality is a fixation on lighting, particularly the lighting of human subjects, defining artistic forms ranging from oil paintings to cinema. In order to bestow the idealized qualities of light (wisdom, blessing, etc.) upon their subjects, Dyer notes the ways in which artists utilized transparency, bringing the light from a white background into the image itself. However, as he quickly points out, “light shows through white subjects more than black”, betraying the ethnocentric implications of these values (110). The opaque nature of King’s medium is by nature in opposition to this approach, but it is also worth noting the ways in which King’s use of light centers and highlights the Blackness of his subjects. Firstly, the sheet of wood which serves as the canvas for the portraits is not white, in contrast to paper canvas, the white frame of a printed photo, or the screen of a projector. Rather, for Kojo Kamau and Aminah Robinson it is brown, and black for William Hawkins. The simple act of placing Black and brown people on a nonwhite background represents a turn away from viewing “the world as if it is on a ground of light” (110). Secondly, King’s use of depth to create shadow inverts the traditional focus on transparency. As noted before, the lines of the subjects’ faces are empty space between each cutout and the wooden backdrop. For the purpose of mirroring the traditional arrangement of a portrait this creates another canvas of empty space directly above the wooden one. As the layers of wood move closer to this canvas, less light reaches them, and the contours of the face are more defined by shadow. In this way, King performs the opposite of transparency, placing his subjects on a ground of shadows and making black permeating the subject’s faces in honor of the artists who themselves centered Black people in their work.


In this way, King performs the opposite of transparency, placing his subjects on a ground of shadows and making black permeating the subject’s faces in honor of the artists who themselves centered Black people in their work.

Interestingly, when photographed, the portraits seem to flatten, and the space between the layers of wood is harder to perceive. In contrast, looking at them from the side makes almost each piece of wood visible, and while the image is retained it appears odd. There are no clear boundaries to this perception; no walls out the edge of the face or physical barriers in the display itself. As such, it seems that this view is not a misperception but an alternative to the head-on display, allowing for the appreciation of the work’s design, the thorough respect with which King frames the late Columbus artists.


The works described remain in the Columbus Museum of Art, and King’s other works can be found online at https://artistpercyking.com/.