Born and bred in the county of Kings, Brooklyn, NY, King David is an abstract artist moving oil paint and turpentine around not on canvas per se, but plexiglass, MDF and wood, creating powerfully evocative compositions that are often titled as meditations. Amidst the COVID pandemic and the eruption of protests across the nation, he’s had an art fair appearance postponed, but has taken it as an opportunity to sharpen and refine his collection to include the emotional charge of this time of protest, reform and anger. Here, we catch up with the obsessive painter and get a glimpse into some of the work forming on the floors of his Brownsville studio.
Emily Conkln: How has the COVID-19 lockdown affected you and your work? Has it led to any changes in your studio practice or how you’ve approached subjects.
King David: Honestly, I’ve been extremely lucky in how the pandemic has affected my practice. I drive to my studio in Brownsville, so I don’t have to rely on public transit, and it’s my own space. A lot of people fled the city when this all hit, but to me, that was crazy. I was born and raised here, there was no way I was moving. It’s amazing to have my family close, my studio accessible, and truly the pandemic has given me a lot more space and quiet to listen even closer than usual to the work. The lockdown really forced artists like me to have no distractions. There’s this extra dimension that circumstantially presents itself, where I get to look deeper into the energies happening right now. And those energies and ideas are impossible to miss, if you’re a serious artist in tune with the world, and the people around you.
EC: How have you seen your art shift or change during the pandemic and the wave of recent protests?
KD: The metaphor of everything boiling over is a metaphor for America right now. There is so much that’s come to the surface that we need to change and give attention to. Since my work isn’t explicitly political, it exists in an abstract realm of thought, inexplicably linked to circumstance. I think about how really, the artist is always working just by seeing and feeling. While my compositions may be inspired by something as concrete as an event or a figure, these serve mainly as points of reference through which to further engage with the abstract nature of ideas themselves (I am very serious about implementing self-imposed limitations on my work, to keep consistently reaching for a higher quality, not settling). The pandemic allowed me to quiet things down and really just think about the paint. But the charged energy of the work I’m creating is undeniable in the context of the current American climate.
EC: Can you describe, even if it’s difficult, how your abstract work has been expressing itself in your studio?
KD: This current energy and anger has really been showing up undeniably in my paint, and it’s something of a surprise, but the unexpected is what you need for the creative process, what really reminds you that something is working on a subconscious level. I had a rare but very significant moment just last week, actually. I’m working on a diptyque, the second piece of it. The first piece, I felt really good about. I allowed myself to leave it to the side, and move on to the next. But this second piece was very touch-and-go for me, which usually is a sign that something still needs to be moved, or worked through. There was a Turpenoid backorder for weeks at Blick, and so I was working with a lot of oil, and this encaustic texture emerged. However when I finally got the Turpenoid, I began attacking the paint with it, reintroducing a violent chemical nature to the process, and all of a sudden so much new stuff was happening, and I was a bit overwhelmed. I always learn from what I don’t expect, from the moments of discomfort, and when so much happened, suddenly I was like, ‘shit, it’s working.’ I knew I had to stick with this, and even in the fervor of the work it almost got away from me. That’s the trick about the creative process. It’s all about striking this balance of being cautiously aware and hyper-present, and really putting in the work to decipher it, to find those moments where your painting elevates from pleasing to you to so moving you could make someone cry. It doesn’t just happen overnight; it doesn’t just come to you without the consistent work.
EC: What else have you been working on that has surprised you, or evolved in unexpected ways?
KD: There’s been a lot of new ideas and new forms circulating for me recently. I feel that this period of time has been a blessing in a way, as I had been preparing a large body of work for The Other Art Fair, originally scheduled to showcase in May but postponed to November due to the outbreak. Now, my work for this fair will be able to encompass the powerful energy of this spring and summer, in ways I never could have predicted. One of the most original ideas I’m working through for this show is actually a print I’ve collaborated on with a press, Brooklyn Editions. It’s probably my most explicitly figural work to date, but I still think of it as a concept piece. While it’s still my best kept secret right now, I can tell you that it deals more or less directly with policing. While my art is abstract, that doesn’t mean it’s divorced from my time, or not engaged with the current; the distillation of the process allows the work to hover from universal to intimately tied to context, whether obvious or implied.
EC: What does this experimentation with a new medium mean for your practice?
KD: It’s a really exciting thing for me, to bridge into other mediums, but ultimately it helps me recalibrate when I go back to thinking about my painting. I’m classically trained in oils, and so there’s so much tradition and process to be excavated, honored and challenged there. The last exhibition I saw before the COVID-19 closures was the Gerhard Richter show at the Met Breuer. It was stunning. I remember distinctly being fascinated with an installation of his that features four windows. The piece is inherently abstract and conceptual in nature, and I thought, because I admire this artists’ technique and process in such an intrinsic way, I respect this challenge within the subject matter. They’re just windows, but it prompts all these questions for me based on their contexts and presentation. Art can be windows when you have the right lens. The justification is in the questioning of what art is, what it can or should be, etc.. And the windows work like mirrors too, as all glass does, since artists right now, at all levels, are reflecting on what our art can really do, or its essentialness.
EC: What do you think the role of art is right now, during a global pandemic as well as a nationwide social justice movement?
KD: As artists, we may think well, of course we have to believe our work is essential, or important. That’s how we psychologically justify what we do. But even that’s only a starting point. We’re all sitting around consuming media and content created by artists, from TV to podcasts to animation. And in a way, this pandemic has realigned my thinking of the art of video with the Black experience, and with my own art, as I’ve recorded myself working and gone through the process of collaborating on a virtual gallery. I’ve been thinking a lot about Arthur Jafa’s short film, Love is the Message, the Message is Death. Through the medium of video, Jafa stitches together a visual vignette of the black psyche in America today. It’s so much more poignant when you consider how recorded media has historically depicted us: from hip hop videos in the 80s and 90s to the shaky cell phone recordings of police brutality we see circulating today, the capturing of life and death on film, or in visual art of any form, is a way of recording history and claiming the narrative. Art made right now is the record of our experiences, there’s no way you can separate it.
EC: How do you feel about digital media taking over the experience of art today, amidst social distancing guidelines and increased digital presences?
KD: There’s this myth surrounding fine art, like painting, and it’s an air of exclusivity: “Fine art is elite because there’s only one painting, sculpture or print, and it can be owned by only one person.” If that person decides to keep it in their living room forever, no one else will ever see it. And people will forget it exists, or never even know about it, aside from a few individuals at Sotheby’s or somewhere like that. There’s kind of a romantic beauty to that life of a work, but it’s also irresponsible. Art should be seen, and be allowed to be seen, because the 1-1 interaction it can offer is so powerful; at the same time, I as an artist struggle with that exclusivity of place, and this desire for my work to be seen by as many people as possible. That audience is attainable through digital technologies. But even with the digital gallery or other means of virtual viewings, everyone may be able to see my work, but not everyone can call it their own. My work contains the energy of a specific moment of creative energy, and it cannot be replicated. But I do think that there can be a balance struck when you have good relationships between three categories: the artist, the collector, and the institution. When working together, art can be valued but still seen, shared with the world but not watered down. While I can’t currently be in the gallery at the opening, interacting with the viewers and seeing their reactions to my work, they’re still getting a glimpse of me. And that conversation, that ability to create dialogue or alter a new perspective, can open up so much more.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.