British born artist David King Reuben isn’t yet 30 years old, but he’s already an established force on the NY art scene. His work touches on themes as seemingly disparate as creation, destruction, fragmentation, royalty, and plastic surgery. We caught up with David to talk about breaking the rules, Marcel Duchamp, and his aspiration to get operated on in the name of art.
You grew up Orthodox Jewish in England—were you exposed to art as a kid?
My dad was always a very big movie buff—we had black and white movie posters; then everyone turned ultra orthodox, and those posters got replaced by paintings of rabbis. I always looked at the technique of how they were painted in such awe. We had this little back room my dad used to study Judaism, [which] was covered with portraits of rabbis. It was almost like going to a Warhol exhibition.
When did your passion for art begin?
In my early teens I became fairly rebellious. My questioning of the religion grew. I had to break out of it somehow. I took that backroom which was originally created for Judaic worship, and they said you, whatever you do, do it over there. They gave me a little corner, put a little bit of plastic down. And the room slowly but surely started getting paint on it. It became a place for any sort of means of expression I could use to free myself.
Tell us more about your childhood, and what fostered your desire to make art.
I went to an all Jewish boys school. There were so many things you weren’t allowed to do. Evolution had been torn out of the history books; ideas were censored. Even in art class, painting a nude—you can’t do that. That’s the polar opposite of what an artist is meant to do.
How did you break out of that?
When I was 15 I went to a school called Northbridge House, and it was the most incredible thing ever. They had a photography section and I basically lived in the dark room. There was an art room with all the materials you could ever want. I didn’t understand why people went on breaks. Break? Why would you go on break when you could be painting? I live the same way now. I don’t understand why people go on holidays. Taking a holiday from what? From life? You’re only given one life, take the holiday when you’re dead.
Let’s go back to that idea of what an artist is meant to do.
Artists [are meant] to reflect one’s society and to expand on research. We’re not that much different from a scientist: we come up with an idea, we come up with hypotheses, and then we start experimenting. And then whether we get it or not, we exhibit that. And we say look, here you go.
What have you been working on lately?
I just started working on a show I want to do called David Reuben presents The King is Dead. When you look the portraits of kings, you see them on postcards or in galleries, they’re almost caught in this little white cage. [But] at one point when you went to see a king, in all his robes and gold, and Asian fabrics, you must of seen him or her and gone, this is incredible. But now anyone can go out and buy a printed scarf, a shiny pair of shoes. So what I’m experimenting with now, is taking old paintings of kings and queens and putting my own modern touch onto it. I’m gonna try to give you the same experience that you had 1000 years ago when you walked into the palace and saw the king.
Are you working on anything else currently? Are you able to work on more than one project at a time?
I’m working on another project, which is about [the concept of] function. Art used to be a functional thing. Then Marcel Duchamp came around and said, let’s take the function away from art. [He’d] take inanimate objects and make them art. Take a urinal, flip it upside down, sign it, it’s art. What I want to do is take away the functionality of things that we’re used to. IT challenges your idea of what art is. I want to be surgically operated on, live.
What would be the artistic purpose of being operated on live?
It’s a fascination with our need to make ourselves look more beautiful. We end up destroying ourselves; we end up cutting open our flesh, in order to make ourselves more beautiful. But why? In the early 90s, you had all this digital photoshop happening, and it became very easy to liquify someone, to stretch them, pull their jaw in. In 10 years, Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein reprogrammed a whole generation to think, this is what we should look like. So it’s really a fascination of mine, this idea of how we cut and slice ourselves. My paintings are made up of fragmented pieces of paintings. I take paintings from 20 ago and I’ll cut them all up and re-fragment them back together.
So in a way, you’re responding to modern technology. How has technology become a part of your world?
[Technology] is just a tool. When you realize that, it doesn’t matter what kind of camera you have, it’s what you shoot that matters. It’s the subject, it’s the narrative.
What would you say are consistent themes in your work?
Fragmentation. And destruction. Every time something is destroyed, something is created in that same act. It’s not that once you destroy something, something else is created, it’s that the act of destruction is creating. Every time you create something you’re also destroying something. And it’s this idea of these two opposing points that really fascinates me.
Is creating always enjoyable, or is it torturous at times?
I wouldn’t use the word torturous. Painting for me is not a choice. I was never able not to do it. When I was younger and I saw a notebook with a white page, there was nothing more that excited me. I still feel the same way today. Intertwined in that excitement, it’s terrifying. You’ve suddenly gotta put something on that, and it has to be worth someone’s time. But I have a firm belief that there’s no such thing a creative block; it’s a stupid myth. [If] you can’t draw a face, put your pencil down and start scribbling. If you can’t come up with a chorus, just press down on any note. If you can’t think of a subject to photograph, just click the shutter.