Time Travel: In a new exhibition at BAYarts, David King continues a series exploring a box of family photos
Now that he’s retired, David King has time to get to work.
For three decades, King taught art in Chagrin Falls schools. He is proud of his students. “They make me look good,” he says of them. And he puts his money where his mouth is: Throughout his Cleveland Heights home, he’s hung works by Chagrin Falls graduates who’ve gone on to MFAs and arts careers.
Over his thirty years as an educator, King never stopped painting and displaying. His landscapes and still lifes appeared in HEDGE Gallery and the May Show at Lorain County Community College. But in the last year, he has assembled two solo shows at ARTneo and BAYarts.
“When you retire, you’re busier than ever,” King said.
Both exhibits develop a wholly new body of work, in which family portraits are transformed into scenes at once familiar and otherworldly. An elderly couple might hug and smile for the camera, even as they fade into ghostly transparency. A woman taking a siesta in a lawn chair shows no discomfort at the flames enveloping her torso and head. An indigo haze envelops a couch full of grandparents eating from TV trays.
The Bay Village exhibition was awarded to King after he won a CAN Triennial exhibition prize. At the time of the award, BAYarts jurors wrote,
“David King’s paintings of everyday people in everyday situations reflect the quality and viewer engagement that is reminiscent of BAYarts’ high standards for art education programming where figure and painting are taken very seriously. A career art educator, David’s work will be featured at BAYarts in the highly trafficked main gallery, to inspire students and other visitors to discover a fresh way of painting traditional themes.”
More recently, BAYarts Artistic Director Karen Petkovic described every King painting as operating on at least two layers. There is a top layer, the narrative of the original photographs. And then there is a general, thematic layer. By aestheticizing snippets from his own past, King activates viewers’ memories of their own youth, and memories of unearthing family history. Petkovic attributed King’s success in the second layer to his ability to compose scenes with the look and feel of “vernacular photography”—the untrained pictures taken by everyday people with mass market camera equipment.
“If you tried to stage it for the camera, you couldn’t. It’s so organic, and I feel like David’s work has that energy to it,” Petkovic said.
King’s prize exhibit opens in April, and shares its title with King’s ARTneo show: Time Travel. Most of the paintings at BAYarts will be on display for the first time, and continue the series King exhibited in ARTneo.
That series began after King’s sister gifted him a box of family photos, movie reels, and negatives. King says the majority of the pictures were taken by his grandmother, Ruth Bevere. However, he suspects the camera passed between multiple hands at unnumbered family gatherings. The oldest photos date from the 1930s—long before his own birth—and the newest were shot in the 1970s.
Some of the images depicted an uncle who had recently passed away. Preserved on celluloid, King’s uncle appeared younger than King had ever seen him. The experience was profound for King. It allowed him to reconnect with his family while also seeing them anew, literally. The photographs allowed him to see his kin as young men and women for the first time since his childhood—in some cases, maybe the first time ever. It is easy to imagine King was flooded with long-dormant memories as he visualized childhood vacation spots, and drew faces he had not seen for years. “I get to know them a little better,” King says of the relatives he paints.
Two locations serve as backdrops for King’s various ancestors, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Firstly, wooded Canadian parks, collectively nicknamed “Camp Ohio.” Secondly, the yards and driveways of suburban ranch homes, the sort which were built by the thousands in the postwar decades. The titles of the works in both Time Travel shows do not tell us who exactly is in the photographs. When we see a boy, we could be looking at the artist himself, a sibling, or family friend. This anonymity does not make us feel distant from King’s family. Rather, it allows viewers to associate the nameless figures with people from their own lives, or even just the archetypes of childhood, family, and middle-class American rituals of gathering and celebration.
Time Travel does not simply translate photography into painting, or conjecturally reconstruct how black-and-white scenes looked in living color. King recombines and embellishes elements from his reference pictures, often situating his figures in magic realism scenarios. In one image, a canoe full of campers tilts upward and floats balloon-like over the surface of a river. In another, a firefighter takes a smoke break on the hood of a car, while across the street, flames leap out of a house’s second-story window. The fireman’s unattended hose spits flame across a driveway, and up the trunk of a tree. The tree’s branches are hot pink, and reach toward a lime-green sky full of orange clouds.
Fluorescent colors enhance the already dreamlike atmosphere of Time Travel. King started using fluorescents as an underpainting. However, as Time Travel evolved, he let more and more of the fluorescents remain visible in finished paintings. King describes the bold colors and surrealism of Time Travel as “hooks:” elements designed to catch and keep viewers’ attention—a balancing act in which he tries to make paintings that are interesting and that audiences can imagine hanging in their homes. “I’ve seen paintings with shock value, but that I wouldn’t want to live with,” he said.) However, as he has worked on the series, the paintings have taken on new layers of meaning.
King has recently begun reading about the neuroscience and psychology of memory. The emerging scientific account of recall is humbling. Memories are not like books on a library shelf. They are not discrete, coherent packages of information sitting in a definite location, ready to be retrieved. Instead, they are stored throughout the brain and reassembled as needed. But the “reassembly” process is not exact. Parts of a memory may be lost or intermingled with unrelated experiences past and present. Omissions and alterations may or may not be noticed by the bearer of memories.
Like the most recent science, King’s Time Travel makes us think about the value of memories we know are inexact.
Time Travel opens April 10 with a reception from 7:00 to 9:00pm. It will run through May 10 in BAYart’s main gallery, located at 28795 Lake Road, Bay Village. For more information, call 440.871.6543; or go to bayarts.net or davidkingpainting.com.