Saturday, September 26, 2009

Follow the route of contemporary art in South Carlina through two exhibition covering half a century

Last week the 701 Center for Contemporary Art was filled with art - most of it leaning against walls and some of it still wrapped in protective plastic.

Mike Williams’ big, colorful swamp painting from 1999 was already hanging. Nearby stood a 1968 sculpture by John Acorn made from a Volkswagen engine. Scattered around the room were the biggest batik painting (below) Leo Twiggs ever did, from ’84, and small photographs from the 1980s of Scottish tradesmen by Phil Moody.

A dark abstract painting "Pond" from the ‘70s by Walter Greer (above) caught the attention of Harriett Green, visual arts coordinator of the S.C. Arts Commission.

“It’s like seeing old friends,” Green said. “That Walter Greer piece I haven’t seen in 10 years,”

She and others have been traveling around the state picking up works from the State Art Collection that have been on loan to various institutions as well as state agencies which display the in their offices.

All the pieces have been rounded up for “The State Art Collection: Contemporary Conversations.”

The first installment of the two-part exhibition opens Thursday at the Center for Contemporary Art. Each show consists of about 60 works by 45 artists.

The oldest piece in the first show is a wood engraving from 1958 by August Cook. The newest is a photo by Michelle Van Parys done in 2000. The ‘80s dominate, making up half the show.
he art ranges from more academic and formal works to that of outsider and self-taught artists. The best-known artist in the show is Jasper Johns, who is represented by a lead relief sculpture from 1970. (right)

The exhibitions were organized by Eleanor Heartney, a New York curator, critic and writer who has worked with the Arts Commission on other shows.

“The idea was to put the collection in a broader perspective of what was going on nationally and internationally,” Green said. “This is the first time we had a curator select from the entire collection.”

40 years of art

The Arts Commission, a state agency, started the collection in 1967. It holds nearly 500 artworks by 277 artists, all of whom have a Palmetto State connection.

Except during financially lean times, the commission has added a few pieces most of the last 42 years. A few years ago, partially because of budget cuts, purchases were cut back to every two to three years. The collecting policy also changed slightly in recent years with more of an emphasis on adding artists or mediums that have been overlooked.

“We wanted to keep collecting, but wanted to do so with more of a long-term plan,” said Ken May, interim director of the Arts Commission.

The collection is like the rings of a tree providing a record of what was going on in South Carolina art during a particular one or two year period. Usually the artworks were purchased around the time they were made. The commission has had a tendency to purchase works from young and emerging artists many of whom have gone on to become older and established artists making very different kinds of art.

The collection often reflects the social and artistic concerns of the times, such as the construction “Smoking by Pregnant Women” by Jean Grosser and Jesse Guinyard Jr.’s “White Flag/Refugee 2” both from the late ‘80s. Materials and styles in vogue at a particular time can also be traced in the collection.

How each artist links to this place and the time they made the artwork in the show can be excavated.

The exhibition breaks the works down into thematic areas by subject matter, such as landscapes, or those addressing political or spiritual concerns. Because of that, the exhibitions may not explicitly address each artists’ impact on South Carolina and its impact on them. A catalog coming out the day the first show opens will provide some of that information.

(The catalog includes art acquired from 1987 to 2006; works added to the collection before that were covered in an earlier catalog.)

Natives, transplants, just passing through

The artists in the show are very much like the rest of the U.S. population in that they’ve moved around a lot.

Bing Jian Zhang was a graduate student at USC and now lives back in his homeland of China where he works as a filmmaker. (Right, Zhang's "Doors of the Forbidden.")

Some, such as Mike Williams are lifelong residents of the state. He grew up in Sumter and has lived in Columbia two decades.

Sigmund Abeles was reared in Myrtle Beach and moved away after college, but has stayed in touch with the people and art of the state and counts his time here as formative to all his art.

Leo Twiggs left his hometown of St. Stephen to attend college, and then returned to spend his career at S.C. State University.

Many moved here and settled in. Jim Edwards of Columbia and Herb Parker of Charleston came to the state to teach college and have stayed for decades. In the case of the late Edmund Yaghjian and others they stayed the rest of their lives.

Not every artist who has made it into the art collection has kept producing, but most have. Many have scattered, some have died. But of the all those with art in the collection only one cannot be located.

“That’s pretty good I think,” Green said.

Looking back, meeting oneself

The exhibitions have started some artists thinking about the art they made early in their careers. How do they feel about it being shown now? How is it connected with what they’ve done since?

Jack Girard spent part of his childhood in Columbia, went away to school, then came back to work in a gallery and study at USC for a time before moving away again. His 1978 drawing “One Star, Lonely Star, Red Box, Deadly Box” (left) is in the exhibition.

“I haven’t seen it in 30 years,” said Girard, who is chairman of the Transylvania (Ky.) University art department, where he has taught for 29 years. “But it is connected with the work I still do.”

Linda Fantuzzo’s painting “Unstable Painting with Table,” from 1991, is the kind of painting for which she has become best known. She stared doing these after a fire, a storm and then a re-roofing mess destroyed many of her earlier works – sculptures that often included found objects. Some of the objects that she once used to make art became subjects for her paintings.
The piece is richly painted, both a still life and a landscape with an aura of mystery to it.

“There’s a landscape in background – like another painting or window,” said the Charleston artist. “I didn’t want to have to do one thing or another, so I found a way to do it.”

Although her style has changed during the past 20 years, it isn’t difficult to recognize the same hand in “Unstable Painting with Table” (left) as a work Fantuzzo finished last week.

Heidi Darr-Hope’s “Artmates” was purchased right out of her master of fine arts show at USC in 1982. The piece is reflective of the times. She majored in fabric art – a fairly new field at the time that grew out of the feminist movement.

It also explores ideas of identity and self-discovery. And it is connected to the art she’s still making.

“What I’m trying to talk about has stayed the same – I’ve stayed true to my voice,” said the Columbia artist. Not only will this work show that artists have stayed true to ideas and ideals, but that they’ve kept working.

“For a lot of us it is so hard to remain producing artists – but here it is 2009 and she’s still at it,” Darr-Hope said.

She’s also interested in how people who don’t know her old work will react to it.

“At first I wondered what the hell the piece would look like, what kind of condition it’s in and if I’d still like it,” she said. “I think it will be fun to see it again.”

The Arts Commission has been in touch with the artists in the shows and expects many to come to attend. Although she’s worked in the arts in South Carolina for three decades and knows nearly everyone it will be her first face-to-face encounter with some.
“Some of these artists I’ve never met,” she said, “but I know their work.”

“The State Art Collection: Contemporary Conversations,” part one runs Thursday, Oct. 1 through Nov. 1. An opening reception takes place from 7 – 9 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 1. The second installment runs Nov. 5 -. Dec. 6. 701 Center for Contemporary Art, 701 Whaley St. 11 a.m. – 8 p.m. Wednesday; 11 a.m. – 5 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday; 1 – 5 p.m. Sunday. (803) 779-4571. Curator Eleanor Heartney will give talks on “The Biennial Paradox,” Oct. 16 at 6 p.m. and “Art Tales of Plastic Surgery, Genetically-Altered Rabbits and Other Acts of Art,” Oct. 19 at 6 p.m.


  1. I was delighted to see the Walter Greer painting lead off your article. (the painting is one in his pond series and is not just lines, but reeds - some bent and broken - reflected in the pond surface) Walter in mid life left the upper part of the state and the corporate life, and moved to Hilton Head in it's earliest days. His paintings are the history of the Island and its beauty. He will be turn 90 during the run of the show.

  2. We started the State Art Collection in 1967 as an "ideal" program which would support the state's artists both financially and through exposure to their work; and would provide traveling exhibits for local museums. it didn't occure to us at that time that the collection would eventually have historic significance. It is gratifying to see the use that is being made of it today. David Sennema, Executive Director, S.C. Arts Commission, 1964-67.

  3. Thanks so much for including this article in your rich collection.


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