GAINESVILLE, Fla. – As night fell Friday on University Avenue artists and patrons gathered in the neon oasis of The SL8 Gallery in downtown Gainesville.
Artist in residence, Dale Fours, 23, wandered around in the black light, orange T-shirt glowing, as people arrived at the exhibition called The 444 Collective Debut. The Debut was The SL8’s first big gallery showing since going off the grid during the pandemic. The exhibition marked a transition for Fours, who prefers to go by 444IDK or his first name, and who got his start as an artist doing graffiti.
“Right before putting this show together, I decided to re-conceptualize the concept of 444 as not just me personally but something anybody can engage in,” Dale said.
Strung with colorful yarn from ceiling to spotlights, the gallery offered an immersive, psychedelic group exhibition meant to explore various states of consciousness. Curated by Dale, it showcased 19 artists and two local musicians.
The idea was born after Dale met the owner of the gallery, Gerard Bencen. “None of this would be possible without Gerard,” Dale said. The two met when Bencen saw Dale’s solo exhibition at the Gainesville Fine Arts Association Gallery in April.
“I loved his vision, his work ethic,” Bencen said of Dale. One piece of Dale’s that stood out to him was a painting that paid homage to Piet Mondrain who used rectangular shapes, primary colors and lines in his abstract paintings.
“Right away I knew he was someone I could work with.”
Bencen, who has lived in Gainesville off and on since 1994, opened The SL8 four years ago. Since then, he’s been working to renovate and turn it into a multifunctional venue, including an art space, micro-cinema and restaurant.
Zzz Zawacki, 24, is an artist and graphic designer who runs an online shop called Somewackart. For Zawacki, being asked to show her work at the exhibition was a unique opportunity.
“I’ve never done anything like this,” she said.
Mostly, Zawacki works out of her online store, but the show allowed her to share her work in a new way. Her tapestries were draped in the windows of the gallery and a few of her acrylic pieces, some of which she’d been working on for five years, were displayed inside.
“Having SL8 here as a gallery, as a place for the collective to hold space and take up space, you don’t really hear that too often. Gainesville having this is spectacular.”
As the rooms grew crowded, Bencen came around with a tray of plant-based cashew yogurt in tiny bowls.
“Nothing with a face” he’d said earlier in the night, referring to the vegan cafe, The Enlightened Artichoke, nestled in the back of the gallery where patrons milled around ordering drinks.
Outside, Carly Klingbiel, 22, sipped on a glass of wine and explained how she met Dale at the University of Florida where they were classmates in the School of Art and Art History. The artists bonded over their shared use of UV reflective mediums in their work. When Dale asked Klingbiel to be a part of the exhibition, she took a UV nail light to her paintings to see which ones would look best under the black light.
The show was Klingbiel’s second ever exhibition. “Every time I see so many people come I get kind of giddy. It’s surreal,” she said.
Adam Leme, 25, came out to the show to support Dale, who has been a close friend of his for almost two years. Since they met, Leme has watched Dale evolve as an artist.
“I am so eager to see where he’s going next,” Leme said.
His favorite artwork of the night was his friend’s furniture piece, dubbed “The Trifecta” by Dale. The furniture piece, three wooden question marks connected at their base, sat in the middle of the front room beneath a spotlight. This piece, Leme said, was one of Dale’s first ventures of incorporating carpentry into his art.
The night unfurled and the gallery filled. Dale stood outside watching people wander in and out. A young boy clutching a bouquet of roses. Bargoers on their way to The Dime. Old friends and new.
“This is everything I work for: being in there, all these people. That’s everything I work for,” he said, betraying a smile.