Have Ink, Will Travel 

The art of David Habben.

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What do you get when you combine the visual impact from the worlds of advertising, children’s book illustration and the flying fancy of a trained fine-art eye? The work of David Habben.

Since last I interviewed him in 2006— on the occasion of his show at PR firm W Communications, while he was still a senior at BYU—his style has not so much changed but evolved. His experiences in the meantime have added depth, both figuratively and literally, to work on display at Kayo Gallery (with Amber Heaton and Claire Taylor, see Essentials Weekend, p. 26).

While the 2006 show featured inventive and whimsical takes on childlike illustrative figures and mythical creatures, his new work has a more-personal, highly pointed symbolism, though not one that simply directs the viewer to an inevitable interpretation. From the “La-La Land” of the subconscious in that former show, he’s moved to images that seem ingrained on the cranium in that space of time where you are just awake enough to have to crane your neck to view it and be able to take everything in.

Since graduating from BYU, Habben (pronounced with a short “a”) worked at Struck ad agency in Salt Lake City, then Chronicle Books in San Francisco for eight months, then returned here to pursue freelance illustrating. While in San Francisco, he mounted two shows that completely sold out. Recently, he’s been designing skateboards for Worship Skateboards in Connecticut. “My commercial work gave me a strong grasp on the digital process,” he explains, “much more education than at school.”

Instead of sketching images by hand, he now uses a Wacom tablet, a digital pad that transfers impressions from a stylus onto a computer: “It’s pressure-sensitive, so I can create different shadings.”

Removing the “hands-on” approach has helped enable him to construct much more personal works of art. These pieces are also 3-D, with sections cut out and raised with segments of foam core, suggesting a route around the work without dictating a definitive pathway.

In “Overboard,” lower left, a man in a boat with oars leaps out of the water to escape the jaws of twin hippos. Another lends an aerial view of a series of men in business suits on a tightrope. Several of them seem to suggest religious symbolism, like one (above right) with a lion biting a snake biting a man in a white robe, with the hand of an angel reaching down to him. A completely personal Habben detail is the inclusion of two patterns: a flower pattern he got from his grandmother’s pillowcase and a check pattern from a tie that he and his father each owned one of. These patterns. he says, suggest the strong role of the guidance of family figures.

“It’s been a challenge to be an LDS artist,” he admits. “We are supposed to be ambassadors for our faith, but an artist approaches things differently, not with direct teachings like pictures of pioneers, but something more indirect.”

In a piece that could be taken as some kind of historical commentary, a cowboy riding a horse is shot with an arrow, and a American Indian headdress flies off his head. In the only one with an overt connection to his Mormon faith, a group led by a robed figure—which Habben explains is Book of Mormon character Alma the Younger—is confronted by an angel. “He’s explored the world and is now being called back to change his ways,” Habben explains. His visual explorations haven’t seemed to bring him into conflict with his own religion, although they have led him to ponder and reflect on aspects of it.

One figure in another work with a Roman-looking garland on his head, Habben explains, comes from a folktale in which a boy asks his grandfather how to be a good person. The grandfather tells a story that we all have two wolves inside us, good and bad, which battle it out. In a bit of irony, the more benign-seeming one is at the Roman figure’s side, while the man’s hand reaches behind him to pass the “bad” one a piece of meat. “It refers to Plato’s idea of what makes a good, moral society,” Habben explains, about acknowledging the darker side of human nature and not trying to eliminate it, since that would be impossible, but rather to keep it in check.

There is, it seems, that dualit y in Habben’s work—depictions of danger, creatures presenting perils both mythical and real, and the protagonists’ struggles to not so much conquer one but strike a balance between elements that persist in the human character. It’s fascinating that Habben is able to explore them visually, yet not be taken in or devoured by the danger. He is like one of the tightrope walkers, and it is a delicate exercise to witness.

DAVID HABBEN
Kayo Gallery
177 E. Broadway
Through Aug. 18
801-532-0080
KayoGallery.com

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