‘Kenneth J. Hale: New Works on Paper’
With his new series of collages, Austin printmaker Ken Hale trades in his flatbed press for a flatbed scanner with intriguing and sometimes luscious results
Reviewed by Amanda Douberley, Fri., Sept. 22, 2006
"Kenneth J. Hale: New Works on Paper"
Slugfest Gallery, through Oct. 8
In the latest stage of a career that spans more than 30 years, Austin-based printmaker and longtime UT faculty member Ken Hale has traded in his flatbed press for a flatbed scanner. Rather than take advantage of the scanner's potential for image manipulation, however, Hale exploits this tool's absolute truth to the image. His new collages and ink-jet prints, on view at Slugfest Gallery this month, occupy the intersection of photography, printmaking, and digital media while at the same time remaining faithful to a modified version of traditional analog print processes.
All three series in the exhibition share a similar starting point. Hale cut photographic reproductions of artworks out of glossy coffeetable books and art history texts. He pasted these pictures down on sheets of paper, then applied a gouache wash that obscures the base images to varying degrees, depending on the resistance level of the coated paper and the amount of blotting done by Hale. Finally, he collaged bits of home and garden magazines on top of the gouache to create a tree in the center of each composition. At every step, Hale scanned the images he was assembling and altering. The importance of this part of the process for Hale seems rooted in printmaking, where images are separated out into layers that can be recombined and reworked to create new compositions. Such is the case, too, in Hale's newest work.
Contrary to expectations, the suite of 20 prints, hung in a grid array on one wall of the gallery, are studies for Hale's collages rather than the other way around. Collectively titled The Same Only Different, each print reproduces a page from Hale's sketchbook, which he scanned, printed out, then painted with acrylic. The scanner's unstinting fidelity picks up every detail, including warps in the paper, which take a while to notice because they look so real I assumed the prints were buckling on a particularly humid day, until I realized that the grey shadows I saw were actually two-dimensional. This flattening-out makes for a drastic contrast with Hale's series of collages, Now & Then, which can be described in one word: luscious. True to the best collage work, he takes the utterly mundane and transforms it into something extraordinary. The buildup of layers on the surface of each support is exceptionally tactile; one gets a true sense of Hale's pleasure in the tedious task of ripping and pasting down scraps of paper.
In Now & Then, the collaged photographic reproductions of historic artworks are so obscured by gouache as to be almost unrecognizable. They form a ground for Hale's trees that's all color and pattern rather than a set of allusions with any fixed meaning. The gouache is less dense Ñ and more vibrantly colored Ñ in each Landscape Revision, a series that incorporates some of the scans made during the production of Now & Then. By allowing a greater part of the base image to show through, Hale gives the old master paintings he poaches more of a voice. Still, although the Landscape Revisions begin to establish a firmer relationship between the different elements in Hale's compositions, the connection in terms of content remains tenuous. These ties may be strengthened as this new body of work progresses; after all, the artist's last major series took him about 10 years to exhaust. With the current show at Slugfest, it seems Hale is just getting warmed up.