Sunday, October 18, 2009

"Contemporary Conversations" nothing to talk about

A two-part exhibition culled from the 500-work South Carolina state art collection is subtitled “Contemporary Conversations,” but it’s an awfully shallow dialogue.

The quality of the 60 paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures in the first installment isn’t the issue. Why they were picked and how they are shown is.

In a statement, curator Eleanor Heartney writes, “The selection is meant to be somewhat rowdy and unruly…” That’s one way to put it. “Unfocused and lackadaisical” is another.
The result is an exhibition that has no discernible order.

The many curatorial missteps are exacerbated by the fact that the venue, 701 Center for Contemporary Art in Columbia, is too small for this show, let alone the show that was needed.

The exhibition eschews chronology, content or style grouping; nor are the works displayed to provide intellectual or visual contrast.

“Each section is designed to be complete in itself, and hence cuts across time, theme and medium,” she also writes. “Hopefully this organizing principle will point to unexpected affinities…”

Actually that’s the very opposite of an organizing principle.

Certainly, a savvy and knowledgeable viewer can see how works are related or how a certain artwork or group of works connects to the larger art world. Or how an artwork, often from early in a career, contrasts with the artist’s later work. Still it is quite unlikely most viewers will be in a position to do this.

What’s wrong with a little more guidance? This feels not only sloppy, but lazy.

The text on the walls gives only artist name, title, year and medium. Again, not enough room. What’s provided is a handout written by Heartney which is as fuzzy as her selection process. The essay she has written covers both shows, so one might be visiting part one, read about and start looking for Merton Simpson’s painting. But it isn’t in this show; it’s in the next one. Those seeking out Jesse Guinyard’s sculpture, also mentioned in the essay, while the second exhibition is up won’t find it as it is in the current show. And beside that, no one is going to read this essay and get the sort of guidance they would from good wall texts.

The essay itself is vague and at times inaccurate. (Outsider art is not part of the mainstream? Where has Heartney been for the past 25 years?)

It’s difficult to understand why Heartney, who doesn’t appear to have any understanding or knowledge of the art and artists of South Carolina, was picked to curate this show. Couldn’t the Arts Commission find someone who knows something about the art of the South Carolina? (The last exhibition she did in South Carolina “Thresholds: Expressions of Art & Spiritual Life” in 2003 was better, but the concept seriously flawed in its vagueness as well.)

The State Art Collection and the “Contemporary Conversations” exhibitions offered so much potential for engagement. One could have looked at 40 years worth of abstraction contrasted against realism and where the two overlapped. Put the most conservative pieces in one show and the most adventuresome another – or mixed them up. The traditional folk arts might have been combined with the art that grew out of craft traditions, but was made by college-educated artists. How about the political vs. the pretty?
A basic chronological breakdown, or even the artists lined up alphabetically, would be more coherent than this.

Although it is a bit like complaining of a meal, “It wasn’t very good and the servings were too small,” both installments of “Contemporary Conversations” are, at one-month each, on display for too short a time.

In conjunction with these two exhibitions, the S.C. Arts Commission, which created the collection and maintains it, has just published a catalog of acquisitions since 1987. (The collection was started in 1967.) It suffers many of the same shortcomings as the exhibitions – lack of context and a central organizing principle.

Only the most basic information about the artists is provided, when their stories could have been fascinating. Who are these artists really? Where did they come from? Where did they go? What are they doing now? The catalog could have explored the state’s impact on their art and an evaluation of their importance in the state’s art production of the past two decades. The book provides only the most bare-bones resume on each.

The major essay in the catalog is by David Houston, who was the visual arts coordinator at the Arts Commission from 1989 to 1991. While there isn’t anything terribly wrong with his essay – he touches on all the touchstones such as abstraction vs. realism, multi-culturalism and post modernism – it’s very general and misses several important points in the state’s recent art history.

It’s as if in looking for a curator for the show and an essayist for the book, the Arts Commission refused to consider anyone who might know a great deal about South Carolina art.

The book is an important documentation of the art collection and the growth of South Carolina art during the past 20 years – although maybe not in the way the Arts Commission intended. As many people have noted before, art here has lagged far behind what’s being made elsewhere. More interesting is how much of the work in the collection is not very good and how many artists whose careers went no where are included. And how many important artists are missing.

“Contemporary Conversations” part one runs through Nov. 1; the second show runs Nov. 5 to Dec. 6. The center is at 701 Whaley St. Open 11 a.m. – 8 p.m. Wednesdays: 11 a.m. – 5 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; 1 – 5 p.m. Sunday.

For information (803) 779-4571 or go to or the S.C. Arts Commission at (803) 734-8696. An on-line gallery is at

Curator Eleanor Heartney will give a talk, “Tales of Plastic Surgery, Genetically Altered Rabbits, and Other Acts of Art” followed by a book signing 6 p.m. Monday, Oct. 19 at the Center for Contemporary Art.

A panel discussion on the state art collection takes place at 6 pm. Nov. 5 followed by an opening reception for the second part of “Contemporary Conversations.”

Pictured from top, art in part one of "Contemporary Conversations."

"EmbryoBiscape," 1980, by Jim Steven.

"Stephanie," 1932, by Edmund Yaghjian.

"Why Angels Jump," 1978, by Guy Allison

"Annunciation with Shepherd," 1985, by Sigmund Abeles

"Across the River 13," 2003, by Tom Stanley


  1. "This feels not only sloppy, but lazy." This seems to be a good comment on your own article. Simply saying that the show wasn't organized well enough for you to make a legitimate critique of any substantial part of the show should be seen as a cop out.

    "Certainly, a savvy and knowledgeable viewer can see how works are related or how a certain artwork or group of works connects to the larger art world." By making such a statement you have designated yourself as being neither savvy or knowledgeable because you were unable to see such relationships yourself. After visiting the show myself, I can see how the collection could be described as unorganized and yet there seems to be an interesting lack of organization. The art in this collection, unlike other state exhibitions which are usually based on one medium or one artist, spans over many mediums and many decades. The art seems to be organized in such a way to show off the varying aspects of these differences. That alone serves as a vehicle for the "intellectual or visual contrast" you seem to be seeking and yet are looking far beyond.

  2. I can see lots of relationships and connections because I know the art, I know the artists, I know what they did before these works and after these works (therefore I am savvy and knowledgeable regarding this work.)BUT the job of a curator and an art institution is to put together an exhibition that makes sense to someone who has never heard of or seen art by any of these artists. (This is something that I did in an advance piece about the show which ran a week prior to it opening.) Maybe this makes me anti-elitist - a tag I'm happy to have. Just as I'm happy , as I have done, to walk through the show with and talk about the artists and their work in a way that doesn't leave the regular Joe and Jane standing out of Whaley Street. - jeffrey day


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