David Reuben: “Kings & Corpses”

The British painter's colorful yet macabre US gallery debut

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On 22 October, fine artist and filmmaker David King Reuben will make his US debut at 532 Gallery Thomas Jaeckel in Chelsea, NYC. The show will feature his large-scale, figure-focused paintings paired with photographer Dominic White‘s black and white photos. Reuben’s engrossing work swells with color trapped within form. Highly textured; with layered oil, acrylic and spray-paint on canvas, there’s an abundance of life in each character he envisions.


Although the works were made between a studio in Manhattan’s West Village and a workspace residence in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Reuben’s roots formed within a cabalistic Jewish community in Northwest London—where his grandfather was Rabbi. “I was very Orthodox as a kid. It was the only world I knew and I thought to be the best within it,” Reuben explains. It wasn’t until his teens that he grew rebellious. “Whenever I had concerns I spoke to the Rabbi’s wife, my grandmother. I was away with friends during Shabbat and my grandmother stayed with my family. She died of a heart attack in my bed while I was away. When I returned the next day, I found out that she had been laying in my bed, deceased, the entire day while my family mourned over her.” It was after this incident that Reuben made his first painting.

The image within was an aggressive attack upon religion, which Reuben’s father wanted him to destroy. “I hid it and kept painting, until they couldn’t be hidden anymore.” His mother offered Reuben a room in the back of the house, previously reserved for Judaic study, to use as his first studio. “I painted to find my own identity and to break out of the world. I felt like I had to fight for everyone. Still I paint to find identity.” Reuben also observes that “the struggle isn’t the same, but it is striving for an idealized beauty within identity.” This birthed the name King with a realization “that we could be our own king, king of our future—beyond a small northwest London world.” Reuben began signing his work with King; an adopted middle name.

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Some of Reuben’s paintings have taken over three years to complete. Rather than start with an idea for execution, he describes the process as “a transformation of internal search for self—as I find myself, the paintings find themselves.” On the nature of his character studies, he notes, “That’s why you’ll find so many characters; we are so many characters—constantly changing and evolving and growing.” Each painting is layer upon layer of process and development. “If I were only to put one layer—which could look good aesthetically—it would not be truthful to me. It hasn’t gone through the search.”

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Most of the paintings featured at the exhibition utilize a simple, one-color background because “the external side of the world is a uniform onslaught. It’s an overwhelming brightness. I am concerned with what falls in between the figure; the darker complexity.” This is represented in the show’s name two-fold: “I settled upon the name ‘Kings & Corpses’ because Dominic’s Cuba photos portray many of these corpse-like photographic frames but trapped within, you’ve got stately, elegant cars from the 1940s. Everyone is poor—sitting on the side of the street without shoes—yet beside these glorious chariots.” This manifests in Reuben’s work as well, as “a lot of the figures that I do have a skeletal-like feeling, and it is the process of finding the powerful existence within. All kings will die, but I thought it would be interesting to portray the dual self, where we are everything and nothing.” His figures portray the power of a king and the recognition that we are all destined for the same demise.

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Beyond the substance, even his materials play with impending death: “I manipulate archivability, using supplies in some paintings that can deteriorate over time. It challenges the idea that a painting is only valuable if it is the same forever. We won’t be the same forever.” Whether blending caulk with oils or spritzing acid onto a section, he denies our efforts to preserve. “We try. We try to stay young. We are trying to fool death, but in reality, it gets you.”

“Kings & Corpses” opens on 22 October 2013 at 532 Gallery Thomas Jaeckel, from 6:30 P.M. to 10 P.M.

Image of artist courtesy of Max Montgomery, other images courtesy of David King Reuben