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David Hale’s St. Francis at ABV Gallery Falls Victim to the Venue

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David Hale, Carpenter's Son, 2012, pen, ink, and metallic leaf on paper, 19.5 x 23.5 inches. Image courtesy abvatl.com.

The opening night of David Hale’s new solo exhibition titled St. Francis was exactly what I expected from an opening at ABV Gallery. The gallery was packed with ultra-cool clientele; the drinks were free and plentiful; the artwork was flat, graphic, and not particularly challenging; and watching over the whole scene was a slow-motion video of the artist drawing a skull accompanied by a heavy bass soundtrack.

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This is typical of the offerings at ABV, which I see as kind of a contemporary analogue to Keith Haring’s Pop Shop—perhaps minus a pointed socio-political conscience. ABV is about promoting a youthful urban aesthetic in a sleek environment, so you don’t go to an opening there expecting to be challenged by the work. You go to have fun, hang out, and maybe buy a t-shirt. In that regard, Hale’s St. Francis seemed to fit perfectly.

Click above to view the video shown at ABV Gallery’s opening, or click here to watch it on Vimeo.

The show features a series of pen-and-ink drawings on paper presented simply in white frames with white matting. Hale has limited the palette to red and black and has included gold or bronze leaf embellishments in each piece. The drawings show images of one or more animals whose features have been reduced to flat areas of pattern, suggesting a Native American influence. The imagery seems to float on top of the fleshy tea-stained background making the images reminiscent of tattoos, which seeing as Hale has been a dedicated tattoo artist for the past four years, makes sense.

David Hale, Elijah & the Raven, 2012, pen, ink, and metallic leaf on paper, 27.5 x 21.5 inches. Image courtesy abvatl.com.

With this work, Hale sought to “illuminate the fundamental similarities between all mythologies and mystical teachings by merging Christian mythology with Native American and pagan mythologies.” I definitely see the influence of Native American art on Hale’s style. And the Christian connection is explicit in the case of works like Serpents or Resurrection which have Bible verse chapters and numbers written directly on the paper (Matthew 10:16 and John 11:25, respectively). With drawings like INRI, which shows a lone haloed buck leading a pack of 12 deer, and Carpenter’s Son, with a gold-wreathed carpenter bee playing the role of Christ, the connection to Christian iconography is more veiled, giving the viewer something to discover.

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On the surface, it seems like a reasonably clever choice to title this show after St. Francis, the patron saint of animals and ecology. But the stylized re-imagining of Christian iconography is the result of Hale’s intuitive working process rather than the academic dissection of mythology that the statement leads us to expect.

The boldly eccentric display of David Hale's 2011 exhibition at Young Blood Gallery, Medicina, contrasts with the chilled presentation at ABV. Image courtesy Young Blood.
Medicina's charm as an exhibition included the not-for-sale bonus of plant life growing in the gallery. Image courtesy Young Blood.

Let’s recall for a minute Hale’s collaboration last year with Kris Davidson at Young Blood with their exhibition Medicina (click here for BURNAWAY’s interview with the artists). In that show, the walls were covered with information. Plants, sticks, skulls, and individual works on panel made up bigger compositions on the already textured walls of Young Blood’s gallery. Hale’s style of drawing hasn’t changed much between that show and this one, so what mostly differentiates the two is the installation. St. Francis is simple and Medicina was eccentric.

Admittedly, the venue of ABV did have an influence on Hale when choosing how to present this work. “I try to make all of my work very site-specific,” said Hale when I interviewed him by email earlier this week.

This video still from ABV Gallery's recap of the St. Francis opening shows the static presentation of Hale's current show, St. Francis.
Another still from the same video centers on ABV Gallery's culture of throwing parties that push the sale of merchandise at the expense of experiencing the art.

So with that in mind, it becomes obvious that the simple white-on-white presentation of the work in St. Francis is in large part a reaction to the clean and cool personality of ABV, just as much as the exuberant abundance of Medicina was a reaction to the slightly quirky and whimsical atmosphere at Young Blood.

Although it makes sense to make work for the place where it will be seen, St. Francis still leaves me wanting more. Hale has proven that he can deliver exhibitions that are more dynamic than the standard frames-on-a-wall method. If the work had been presented differently, the magical imagery could have been activated in a more satisfying way. But as it is, I’m left with something clean and well crafted, but ultimately not as exciting as what I would have expected from such a talented and inventive artist.

David Hale’s exhibition, St. Francis, continues at ABV Gallery through Friday, July 6, 2012.