What the Talisman Tells: Meditations on David King’s Latest Collages


David King. "Talisman #1," 2011. Collage. 15 x 22 inches. Courtesy the artist and Hang Art Gallery, San Francisco.

David King is a collage artist based in San Francisco. In the last several years, his work has moved away from representational imagery into abstraction. The sensual and magic-realist inflection of the earlier work is still a resonant factor in his latest series called “Talismans.”  It is as if the impressions elicited by King’s older dreamscapes (populated by classical figures, athletes, yogis and jeweled architectures) had been collected, purified and condensed. Suddenly, the human body is gone altogether and the props of opera and fairytale dissolved. All that remains is the darkened stage on which the exquisite remnants of his older work have coalesced into archaic amulets. The picture plane becomes a theater of talismans more potent than one with human actors. And yet there is something incredibly alive about these “things” which exude an almost watchful persona while they hover against panoplies of starry clusters.

David King. "Talisman #3," 2011. Collage. 15 x 22 inches. Courtesy the artist and Hang Art Gallery, San Francisco.

King’s Talismans move back and forth like pendulums between transparency and solidity.  Movement from one state to the other seems imminent, though we are arrested in that moment of elegant equilibrium. This feeling of balance, of hovering on the border of density and dispersal, is also strengthened by the background columns of atomized spheres. Their softly bulging contours engender memories of soap bubbles, or even jellyfish–things protoplasmic and primitive which nevertheless connote a sense of joy through buoyancy. For the human viewer, the inhabitants of atmosphere or ocean often trigger thoughts of that most delicious (and elusive) of physical states: weightlessness.

David King. "Talisman #5," 2011. Collage. 15 x 22 inches. Courtesy the artist and Hang Art Gallery, San Francisco.

The humanoid figures of the paleolithic world are echoed in King’s new works. The Great Mother was concretized as a gently rising mound, a smooth and pear-form bulb or egg, her breasts, hips and belly a gentle conglomeration of all things fecund and full of fluid warmth. These associations connect directly to those of the vessel. Thus throughout history Mother-form is given to objects of containment: the bowl, the chalice, the vase and even a “cabinet of the cosmos.” The Talisman plays a similar role, as it too signifies a protecting presence, quite literally a holder of the bearer’s hopefulness for the future.

David King. "Talisman #7," 2011. Collage. 15 x 22 inches. Courtesy the artist and Hang Art Gallery, San Francisco.

In later Minoan and Mycenean cultures this feminine presence is aligned with serpent and bull: those animals of the arcing body parts, the crescent horn and the spiral coil. These nonhuman physiognomies become paralleled in the sinuous movements held by the human figures of old Crete. In the way of a family-resemblance, King’s Talismans hold the viewer through their connection to such ritual maneuvers: the raised “arms,” the flaring out of the “cape/skirt,” the serpentine rising of the “magic wands” behind the figure. These forms all appear to be in the act of filling up, of climbing vertically, of readying as a magician readies through a regime of minor movements before culminating in a final grand gesture which will bring about some impressive metamorphosis.

David King. "Talisman #8,"2011. Collage. 15 x 22 inches. Courtesy the artist and Hang Art Gallery, San Francisco.

Out of their dense clusters of golden circlets, King’s Talismans remind us of the nature of our own bodies, which seem so solid but after all are really only grand amalgamations of cells. We ignore this in our day-to-day routine, living as we do at the epidermal level. But these bodies of ours are also invisible networks of feeling and experience. We are an entire extended system feeding into every other system with which we come into contact. As self-appointed godlings, we occupy the center of consciousness, we take the role of lead actor. It is often impossible to do otherwise, since this experience of being human is a cluster of sensations that hang together so persistently–a great mesh of invisible golden cells, a force of will moving through the world cloaked in an infinitesimally woven chainmail.

When we see the way King centers our attention through the alternating densities of his compositional units, we might also consider how we ourselves coagulate–that is, how our sense of self takes on a certain type of solidity. Around what moments, persons or things do we feel most heavy or most light? Where do we harden and what makes us break? Where do we fall apart and what makes us feel most together? Where do we feel a sense of self give way to a sense that we are a part of other beings (or other things)? Could we consider such triggers as talismans–those situations or material catalysts that bring about the sudden experience of a different sense of “I”?

David King. "Talisman #9," 2011. Collage. 15 x 22 inches. Courtesy the artist and Hang Art Gallery, San Francisco.

When we contemplate how attached we are to “things” we feel a pang of shame. For those of us fortunate to live in the relative comforts of contemporary material abundance, there are quite literally thousands of objects that grant us nourishment, efficiency and access to other beings. We sometimes revel in our material blessings, but this can give way to a sharp realization that we rely far too much on their presence for our emotional sustenance. In this “realm of regnant things” greatest of all are those objects that connect us to the sentimental, that state of sweet tenderness, deep emotion, instant nostalgia. The invisible networks of association that crisscross our inner realms are navigated by such objects–particularly the heirloom, the photograph, or the souvenir. These are perhaps, for modern people, the greatest talismans of all.

David King. "Talisman #10," 2011. Collage. 15 x 22 inches. Courtesy the artist and Hang Art Gallery, San Francisco.

At the end of the day we are more than “things among things.” We also recognize that there is an essential hubris in the belief that everything is manifested for our sakes. What these Talismans beautifully sum up, however, is the gentle and irrevocable truth of how creatures like us connect to the world, mostly by recognition of the familiar figure, whatever material be it made of. Human beings are mysterious, meaning-hungry entities. King’s Talismans offer a strange comfort. In their visual presence they are magnetically allusive to things and to relationships that we yearn for. Through the power of resemblance and of reminding, the one who beholds or bears a talisman is in fact a being resting in a promise.

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