Life & Culture

The Orthodox Hendon boy who broke into the global art circuit

Fêted multimedia artist David King Reuben’s first show was in his parents’ suburban back garden


Artist David King Reuben has never played by the rules.

From his monochrome sculptures in the centre of London’s 19th-century Burlington Arcade to his eclectic paintings that grace the homes of the rich and famous, his work also always sparks conversation.

And with international exhibitions from Los Angeles to London’s Soho it is work he can now pick and choose. As he puts it: “My artworks are in the right collection, with the right people, on the right walls.”

But international artist stardom was not how he expected the plot of his life to turn out.
Reuben grew up in a strictly Orthodox home in Hendon, north-west London, where he was the eldest of seven children.

Bar the occasional Disney film on a Sunday, television was banned and his primary school was so insular, one of his teachers refused to use the plus sign in maths because she said the symbol resembled a crucifix.

One of the 35-year-old artist’s earliest memories is of climbing into bed in a three-piece black suit so he’d be ready for the following morning’s walk to synagogue for the sunrise service.

It was a life regulated by rules and boundaries yet when he hit his teens and rebelled against what he saw as the constraints of Orthodox custom and practice, his parents gave him space to express his adolescent angst.

They understood that “I was angry and needed get my demons out. For a long time all I would do was bunk off school and draw,” says the former Hasmonean pupil.

In fact, his Sephardi parents, who have roots in Iraq and India, were so understanding they even converted a room at the back of their house that had been reserved for Torah study into the artist’s first studio, into a space where self-expression could reign.

When he was wasn’t at his part-time job peeling potatoes and carrots for a kosher caterer, the studio was where you would find him.

“Painting gave me the language to say things that I couldn’t put into words. For a boy brought up in an ultra-Orthodox world, art was liberating. I imagined it as a microphone into which I could speak loudly. My studio was a place where I could say and question things that I couldn’t in my life outside.”

At first, though, he did not have any actual paint. Instead, he painted with nail varnish and berries from the family fridge.

On one occasion, his father caught him sketching an image, which Reuben will describe only as “super offensive”.

Somehow, word got out and rumours started to spread. Followed by questions: was it true that he painted “this or that”.

His response was to express in his art all the rumours about which he was being questioned.

“I took the community’s greatest and darkest fears and made them a reality,” he smiles.
But once again he was met with understanding: he held his first solo show in his parents’ back garden.

It wasn’t long before he embedded himself in London’s creative scene and started filming artists, models and drag queens in an attempt to understand what made this alternative world tick.

“I wanted to break out of the community, I wanted to explore what was beyond Orthodox boundaries.”

The quest took him to New York where he enrolled in the School of Visual Arts and where he had a “creative and wild” life for the ensuing decade.

He won’t provide details, saying instead that he introduced himself to the right people, wrote music and got his first commission, a painting for which he was paid £11,500.

Today his buyers are prominent collectors, including business magnate Idan Ofer, BlackStone head Chinh Chu and the Zabludowicz Collection.

He has sold to award-winning film directors and actors, including Quantam of Solace director Marc Forster, Trainspotting actor Jonny Lee Miller and music executive Scott “Scooter” Braun.

And his work, which ranges from video installation and ceramics to oil paintings on canvas and concrete, has been photographed for Vogue, Architectural Digest and Cool Hunting.

This year, the former Hasmonean boy also completed a project for Louis Vuitton’s Spring/Summer 2023 read-to-wear collection that used AI models.

“It was a painstaking process that involved hand-painting the models’ clothes,” he says.

Now he is working on a series of paintings inspired by early markings on cave walls. He is taking commissions, but warns there is a “wait list”.
Judaism has not had to wait, however. He has found his way back to the faith he abandoned in his twenties.

Now, though, he practises on his own terms.

“When I’m on a run, I listen to Sephardi music, which I love and I always listen to the selichot. I also pray and meditate.

“I think my relationship with Judaism is a very beautiful one.

“For someone who once threw it away, I am back to being very traditional. It’s a tie to history.

“I think we need faith to be anchored.

“We all need a higher power in our life. We all need to feel small, to feel big.”

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