Thursday, May 21, 2009

Some stunning shows for Spoleto

Johnathan Brilliant's installation at City Gallery.


During the Spoleto Festival USA and its little sister Piccolo Spoleto the visual arts take a back seat. The big festival is out of the visual arts business. The Gibbes Museum of Art usually does something that may or may not be particularly profound. The Halsey Institute for Contemporary Art gallery at the College of Charleston always has something cool and fun, but that’s the way it operates year round.
Exhibitions put on by Piccolo, which is run by the city of Charleston Cultural Affairs Office, are hit and miss – usually miss.
This year there are hits all the way around: “Hair on Fire,” at the Halsey Institute; “Prop Master” at the Gibbes Museum of Art; and last but also first "Contemporary Charleston 2009" at the City Gallery at Waterfront Park.

“Contemporary Charleston” at the City Gallery at Waterfront Park is a sweet surprise. It focuses on a small group of young Charleston artists familiar in the city. The quality of the work and the exhibition is miles above the usual Piccolo offerings. Contemporary Charleston” is actually the third show with that title. The first was in 1991 at the Gibbes Museum of Art, the follow up 2004 at the City Gallery. Both took a much longer view than this show.
The new version curated by City Gallery director Erin Glaze is very contemporary and condensed with only five artists only (Jonathan Brilliant, Ishmael, Dorothy Netherland, Karin Olah and Ben Thompson) showing all new work, some created for and in the gallery,
With such a small number of artists this isn’t a big overview show, but with such a small group it presents a good sampling of each artist’s work.
All but one of these artists is established mostly in Charleston and a few outside.
Netherland, who burst on the scene several years ago with her paintings on glass inspired by ‘50s domestic life, is the best known. Her paintings have been an engaging barrage of overlapping images and garish colors. This show has a few of these, but she’s mostly represented by images that tone down the frantic visual activity. These are more mature and coherent paintings that show an artists who pushing her ideas and craft.
If Netherland’s work is presented in a traditional way (rectangular artwork on rectangular walls), Brilliant’s two installations take over the space. His huge sculpture fills a two-story space in the center of the gallery. It's made of wooden coffee stirrers – 70,000 of them. It is huge but lighter than air with swooping curves that floats above the viewer and also presses down on them.
The solo-named Ishmael started as a graffiti artist and spray paint cans are still his tool. His smaller works place stenciled images on raw wood that feel streetwise and natural. He literally stretches out with an abstract work that takes over a 30-feet wall. One has the feeling that he’s found a whole new language on such an expanse.
Ben Timpson, a recent transplant, makes tiny creating nature-and-figure-inspired images, from parts of flowers, insects, bones, even blood. After all the tedious work (he’s one of the few artists around using tweezers) he ends up with something an inch or two in size mounted in boxes with magnifying glass and lighted from within. The execution and presentation are excellent. The show also includes large (36-by-24-inch) photographs of the tiny pieces, which strip away much of the magic found in the microscopic originals.
Olah is the most traditional and conservative of the artists which is not a negative. Her mostly-abstract collages have always been visually interesting and well-crafted, but in this show her art flowers. Rather than staying within the rectangle, she has just gone right off onto the wall linking several of the individual pieces with fabric that flows like rivers across the walls. (above right.)
Each artists’ process is explored in videos shown behind displays of tools and inspirations, ranging from books to toys to (in Netherland’s case) two very funky chairs and an end table. The show is subtitled “Revelation of Process” and it does that, but does so but without getting in the way of the finished art.
This show is nearly perfect.
If a “Contemporary Charleston” along the lines of this one can’t be an annual event, it is certainly worth exploring as an every two or three year show. Maybe it could even be expanded into a Contemporary South Carolina exhibition – as a kind of replacement for the Triennial that the S.C. State Museum and S.C. Art Commission unceremoniously dumped. It is actually better than some of the Triennial exhibitions. In that case, it would be worth doing regularly if Erin Glaze is in charge.
“Contemporary Charleston,” through June 7. City Gallery34 Prioleau St. (Just behind the pineapple fountain in Waterfront Park). (843) 958-6484

“Hair on Fire” brings together some artists with a Charleston connection (Loren Schwerd taught at the college for several years and Caryl Burtner showed her collection of toothbrushes and other items at the college a decade ago) as well as others from across the country. They’re all women and they all make art of, or closely connected to, hair.
Making art from hair isn’t new and to prove it the gallery has a display of historical hair art borrowed from the Charleston Museum dating back to 1750.
By far the most engaging works are Sonya Clark's real hair sculptures. Among her pieces are a braid-like form running from ceiling to floor on a white paper scroll; hair twisted and shaped to form “Root and Branches,” (left) a delicate but robust “Hair Wreath” and a tiny hand made of hair perched in a tiny wooden bowl.
A collector bordering on the obsessive, Burtner displays hair clipping gathered nearly 30 years ago from friends, along with photos of the hair donors. Next to that she asks visitors to the museum to trim a few locks, put the hair in a plastic bag, label it and nail it to the wall.
The center of the room is dominated by a Schwerd’s shed-like structure (nearly as big as a small utility building) made of artificial hair. Her home and hair theme continues upstairs in smaller, wall-mounted sculptures based on collapsing buildings she saw around New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
Althea Murphy-Price like Schwerd uses fake hair for her sculptures, which sometimes resemble hair (elaborate wigs) but not always. From blond hair she has made a wall bloom with flower-like forms. Another of her pieces feels directly tied to the historical hair works.
Ruth Marten’s watercolor paintings provide a nice contrast to all the sculpture and are so well rendered and rich and varied.
Talia Greene transforms old portrait photos for a rather gothic and ghastly (in an understated way) installation. The people in the small photos are slowly covered with flies creating hair and beards.
This is overall a well-balanced exhibition that could have used a little lock trimming (Greene’s pieces are too many levels removed from the original photos and Murphy-Price and Clark’s art overlap too much.).
Like most of the Halsey shows, it also isn’t afraid to have fun.
“Hair on Fire,” runs through June 15. The gallery is at St. Philip and George streets. (843) 953 5680.

While the College of Charleston gallery has gone to the Charleston Museum for historic hair, two North Carolina artists have mined the Gibbes Museum of Art collection.
Juan Logan and Susan Harbage Page have created the installation “Prop Master,” by using objects from the museum collection (and some from the Charleston Museum) to explore issues of race, gender and class in Charleston.
Such undertakings started around 1995 when the artist Fred Wilson created an installation called "Mining the Museum" in Baltimore.
Logan and Harbage Page have followed this tradition resulting in a thought-providing, intellectually-rigorous, artistically-exciting show.
The installation allows the artists to comment on the history of the museum as well as the city.

"Prop Master" is set in the large upstairs gallery which is really more of a ballroom than a gallery. It’s a grand space where the well-to-do have mingled for 100 years beneath portraits of their ancestors, who bear names such as Manigault, Pinckney and Middleton.
Portraits of people with those same names are part of “Prop Master,” but most were taken recently and all are of black people. How did they get those names? They got those names because their ancestors were owned by Manigaults, Pinckneys and Middletons. On the wall hang portraits of Ya’Sheka Drayton, Ayanna Gadsden and so on, although their flow is interrupted by Colonial-ear portraits of the white people who held these names.
The other side of the gallery is given to a huge big group of miniature portraits (the museum has an extensive collection of miniature) where the artists play with race and gender in tiny ways.
The center of the grand room contains a platform enclosed by four battered columns and on it are 10,000 little boxes. Of these 40 are black, the rest are white. That’s the breakdown of art by black vs. white artists in the museum collection. It may require a bit too much explanation, but it still very effective as an artwork and as a statement.
“Prop Master” is a very worthy follow-up to last year’s powerful “Landscape of Slavery” exhibition. The museum is at the forefront in the region in putting together its own well-researched and scholarly exhibitions.
Prop Master” though July 19. 135 Meeting St. (843) 722-2706.


  1. I went to see the exhibition at City Gallery after reading your post. It was great and the interviews playing on the wall were an excellent addition. BTW - Jonathan Brilliant is this year's S.C. Arts Commission visual arts fellowship alternate.

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