David King Revisits Formative Childhood Imagery in Posthumous Book, Exhibition

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Pages from David King's posthumous artist book 'Happy.' (David King/Courtesy Colpa Press)

Happy, a new photography book by David King, the English-born San Francisco artist who died at 71 last October, comprises full-page images made from small objects and a yellow surface. King took thousands of these photographs, some of which appear in a same-named exhibition at Park Life Gallery, as natural light fluctuations in his home studio drew longer and shorter lines in shadow. The objects, Luca Antonucci of Colpa Press notes in a brief dedication at the end of the book, are culled from what King called his Museum of Small Things. They reference retrofuturism, genteel domesticity and pop culture depictions of masculinity from the mid-20th century. As King fought against cancer, he meditated on the bright, bubblegum imagery that imprinted riotous color on the gray postwar cityscape of his United Kingdom upbringing.

King earlier published a book, Walking Photos, showing his eye for shapes and textures hidden in the built environment of San Francisco, and Happy similarly surfaces enchanting formal aspects of everyday objects. A tiny blue pushcart with elongated shadows, for instance, registers as a working-class symbol as well as an abstraction of cascading rectangles. Other objects appear in pairs, drawing attention to qualities less conspicuous singly. The focal point of identical businessmen figurines becomes the divergent paint cracks, and two burly, mustachioed men in bowler hats look less tough, more cabaret as they lunge side-by-side. Even before the vintage comic book covers, which echo the dramatic angles and negative space of his own work, King’s interest in the latent camp of masculine caricature is evident.

The cover of David King's posthumous artist book, 'Happy.'
The cover of David King's posthumous artist book, 'Happy.' (David King/Courtesy Colpa Press)

King moved from New York to San Francisco in 1982 with his band mates in Arsenal, including his wife Dione, and reformed the punk group as Sleeping Dogs. In the 1990s, he continued his art education at the San Francisco Art Institute. He found work as a commercial graphic designer and broadened his mediums to include photography, film, stencil and woodworking, reaching across generations and scenes to find admiring peers in the burgeoning Mission School. In recent years King also sought to reconcile the severity of his best-known image, an anti-establishment logo for influential anarcho-punk group Crass, with the levity and humor of his personal aesthetic. David King Stencils, a monograph recently published by Gingko Press, includes introductions by artists and historians Steven Heller, Matt Borruso and Barry McGee.

Happy continues a string of scrapbook-like Colpa Press publications King created from his personal archives of original and found imagery in the past several years. King chose the title before he died, and close associates made many of the selection and sequencing decisions in the book and Park Life Gallery exhibition. Organizers of the show, which includes a handful of photos that don’t appear in the book, describe the pictures as documentation of his practice as a collector: King’s bevy of objects was the artwork itself, gaining meaning in the aggregate. Still, they’re individually stirring, bringing viewers into his state of mind as a child, enchanted by the fizzy chintz of candy advertisements on enamel signs. In one exhibition photo, not included in the book, a dyed paper flower leans at an angle suggestive of sighing into delightful freefall.

David King’s ‘Happy’ is on view at Park Life Gallery through March 1, 2020. Details here.