My Magical Mystery Tour of Visual Arts

On Saturday, June 7, 2008, I headed to Charleston, SC, on one of the last days of the Spoleto/Piccolo Festivals to see as much of the visual art exhibits as I2 could before some closed. This was my one window of opportunity. After this day it was on to the July 08 issue. That’s the way it always is with us – Carolina Arts. By the time we have finished our May ’08 issue the Festivals haven’t even started. By the time the Festivals do start we’ve finished the June ’08 issue and are delivering it throughout the Carolinas. When I’m finished with my 2,000 mile trek – at best, there are a few days left to see exhibitions which end with the Festivals. So it’s a mad dash.

Let me correct that statement. There’s no use mentioning the Spoleto Festival USA – they don’t offer any visual art exhibits – anymore. They did a long, long time ago, but not lately. So we’re talking about Piccolo Spoleto Festival shows and exhibits taking place during that time.

First stop, Charleston Artist Guild Gallery at 6 North Atlantic Wharf, which is near the City Gallery at Waterfront Park, another destination of the day. While I was still delivering papers in Charleston on June 4, one of the Guild’s former Presidents told me to check out their Painted Palettes at Piccolo show. I understood it was on view till Saturday, but I must have been mistaken. That show ended Thursday. If I had only checked my car copy of Carolina Arts, like others do before starting an art trek – I would have known that ahead of time. Don’t leave home without it!

I was shown a few works that had not been picked up by the artists or by people who had purchased some of the creations during the exhibit. It was nice to see that this wasn’t one of those shows where artists were given all the same shaped items to decorate. Just in the few I saw, you could see that some artists were thinking outside the box in putting their own creative touch on the theme of the exhibit. So I was on to the City Gallery at Waterfront Park which is at 34 Prioleau Street – less than fifty steps from the Guild’s Gallery.

The Vanishing Landscapes exhibition was the Piccolo Spoleto Festival’s 24th Annual Juried Art Exhibition, on view through Aug. 8, 2008. This is not the ending date given to us by the City of Charleston Office of Cultural Affairs – who operates the Piccolo Spoleto Festival. That’s why in Carolina Arts our May and June issues say the ending date is June 7, 2008. This is pretty typical of the info we receive from – whomever the new intern is each year – way back in April – before our deadline to print the May issue. Our July issue will have the correction, but as I’ve always said in the past – change is what Piccolo Spoleto is all about when it comes to the visual art offerings. Some years we had to promote exhibits where the location was still TBA at printing time. Other times new exhibits show up in the final copy of the official program – exhibits we never received notice of for our publication.

I picked up one of the exhibit catalogs upon entering the building and started looking at the works. Within ten minutes I was beginning to wonder if this was supposed to be a photography exhibition – there was a lot there and I also was wondering about how environmentally connected many of the works in the exhibit were – beyond being photographs taken of nature and an artist working the word “recycled” into the medium offered on the exhibit tag.

It ended up that photography in some form or another represented just under a third of the entire exhibit and that not many of the works in the exhibit would be sending viewers rushing out to change their habits – as far as wasting our environment away.

A photograph of a heron in the marsh is not an image of our vanishing landscape – at least not yet. It could be soon. Look – all our landscapes as we know them are going to vanish eventually – no matter how much conservation we do. I expected more images of what is responsible for the loss of landscapes now. Like an image of a heron floundering in an oil slick with an oil rig off the coast in the distance. I don’t think the Coastal Conservation League, co-sponsors of this exhibit, exactly got the exhibit they might have hoped for.

Hey, don’t get me wrong. There was nothing wrong with the artworks in the exhibit – there was some exceptional work there. And, I have nothing against photography. My background is in photography. I had a photography-only gallery in Charleston in the mid-’80s, but I was also the president of the local Sierra Club and an officer in the SC State chapter of the Sierra Club. Linda (my fair wife) and I did their newspaper before starting up our first arts newspaper. I’m very concerned about our environment and our landscape, but I just didn’t see a lot of imagery which should have made the cut into this exhibit.

It says in the exhibit catalog that 146 artists submitted work for the exhibition. Each artist could have submitted up to three works. There could have been 438 works submitted. I don’t know how many were submitted – it doesn’t say in the catalog, but only 65 were included in the exhibit. Many have little to do with a vanishing landscape other than words in a title. And, that’s too bad.

It’s still a good exhibit, worth seeing, that has a lot of good work and some great examples of the exhibition’s theme. So go see it and see what you think.

So what was the problem?

Well for one thing, contrary to what the written words in the exhibit catalog would lead you to believe, this was not the original exhibit planned for the City Gallery at Waterfront Park. Ellen Dressler Moryl, Director of the Office of Cultural Affairs had planned some sort of exhibit of Cuban works which fell through and the Vanishing Landscapes exhibit was plan B. The only problem was, she still wanted her friend, Dr. Mokhless Al-Hariri to curate this exhibit. It is my opinion that a better, more environmentally oriented curator could have attracted better entries and selected better works to be in the exhibit. Or at least made the exhibit smaller if good works fitting the theme were not submitted. As is, many works in the exhibit dilute the exhibit’s intent.

The exhibit’s Best of Show winner, an oil painting by Carol McGill entitled Scorched Earth, is a good example of this dilution and I’m sure it made the co-organizers cringe. This same work entered in another juried show might have been titled, Colorful Sunset.

Titles don’t make works an environmental work or an example of vanishing landscapes.

Another example is the work, Under the Oaks, an oil on canvas painting by Sally Hughes Smith. I like the image as a stand alone work, but as an example of vanishing landscapes – no. How many large oaks are we losing that are not victims of natural aging? We have laws about cutting trees this size in the Lowcountry. Of course it doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened. But is it a current threat? Are our oak trees on the verge of vanishing? Maybe underwater if we don’t change our habits fast.

A few good examples are: Monique Morales-Kroll’s digital photograph, Really, Lilies Have No Need For a Couch, which shows a sofa floating in a pond; Katy Perrin’s digital photograph, Recycle, which shows a mountain of compressed plastic bottles; or Karen A. Silvestro’s oil on canvas, Loss and Bloom, which shows a young woman with her head leaning on a large tree’s stump. In her hand is a new seedling. In the background is a forest of tree stumps.

One last thing about this exhibit. I found it strange that in the catalog there is no mention of where these artists are from. I know many are from the Lowcountry, but there was also a rumor going around that some artists were having their works placed in the exhibit by invitation. Rumors are rumors but this same rumor surfaced in another “juried” Piccolo Spoleto show Dr. Al-Hariri handled for the Office of Cultural Affairs. Could this be a reason for not mentioning where the artists are from or was it just an oversight? Who knows. But, it’s not a true juried show if some are being placed automatically.

But again, this is not a reason to not go see the exhibit and enjoy the works as they are. It’s just another opportunity lost in Charleston’s visual art soap opera.

While I was in the neighborhood – I was parked in front of the gallery – I poked my head into the Eva Carter Gallery, at 132 East Bay Street, as I can never get enough of the late, but great, William Halsey’s work and that of Eva Carter’s. After all I am an abstract kind of guy.

Next, I drove over to Nina Liu and Friends gallery at 24 State Street, to get a look at what was left of Aggie Zed’s exhibit, Bestiary. I can’t say this artist’s drawings speak to me but I can never get enough of Zed’s small human/animal sculptures and contraptions.

I then walked down (going South) Queen Street to the Corrigan Gallery at 62 Queen Street to see the exhibit, Celebration, featuring works by Richard Hagerty. This was one of several Piccolo Spoleto Invitational Exhibitions.

I know, I know, I know! In my travels from East Bay Street to Queen Street I was passing lots of other art galleries within an arms reach at times. My mission for the day was to see the Piccolo Spoleto Festival’s visual art offerings and a few things that would be gone by the time I would get back to Charleston next month. Damn me if you will, but there are just so many hours and too little me to get around. And, it’s been a tradition for me to talk about the Festival visual art offerings. At least those I get to see.

Anyway, Hagerty’s work is well known to Charleston’s visual art audience – he has been featured at Piccolo Spoleto several times, but this show was highly promoted so I didn’t want to miss seeing it. I had also promised an artist I would drop off a few exhibit catalogs there from the SC State Museum’s 20th Anniversary Exhibition, taking place in Columbia, SC. (See several blog entries here about this exhibit.) With gas near $4 a gallon, I’m going to make the best of all my travels these days.

Hagerty definitely has more vivid dreams and imagination than most people. His work is colorful and fanciful. His style is noticeable on first sight in any grouping of artworks – if you’re familiar with his work, but I saw – at least new to me – geometric works which I found interesting. By all the red dots (symbols of sold works) it looked as if a lot of other people found Hagerty’s work interesting too. This was an advantage for him – having his show in a commercial gallery. If this show had been in one of Charleston’s institutional exhibit spaces some people would have never considered that the works would be for sale. Yet, many times they can be purchased. Good thing for him and the gallery the City Gallery at the Dock Street Theatre was closed for renovations.

It would be nice if more commercial gallery shows were sanctioned as official Piccolo exhibitions. But then how do you choose and be fair to all?

Next I was off to the Charleston County Public Library at 68 Calhoun Street to return some books on CD – from my nightly travels delivering the paper and to see the exhibit, Intuitive Responses, by members of the Women’s Caucus for Art at the Saul Alexander Gallery – on view through June 30, 2008. This was their second exhibit (during Piccolo?). I don’t remember the first, but this was a really nice exhibit for the small gallery space.

I think many artists in the Charleston area overlook the library’s exhibit space, which is a shame. I think it gets a lot of exposure from library visitors – more than some bigger, more established exhibit spaces.

I want to list the names of the women participating in the exhibit. We didn’t have their names when we were sent info about the exhibit for the paper. They are: L. Jaye Bell, Sandra Brett, Betsey Carter, Leigh Ann Davis, Stephanie Drawdy, Rachel Herbsman, Tina Hirsig, Kate Landishaw, Laura Liberatore Szweda, and Sandy Tedesco. This might have been one of the better surprise exhibits of Piccolo. It didn’t get any press, but then not much of any of the visual art exhibits got much press, other than one or two – which seemed to get it all.

From the library I moved down Calhoun Street to the Addlestone Library (205 Calhoun Street) at the College of Charleston to see the exhibit, Richard McMahan’s MINI Museum, another Piccolo Spoleto Invitational exhibition, presented in the Sanders Rotunda. The exhibit was organized by Mark Sloan, Director of the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art at the college. This exhibit is also on view through June 30, 2008. Make sure you see it.

For 18 years, Richard McMahan, a savant living in Florida, has been creating his own personal museum collection featuring miniature replicas of the world’s greatest works of art from the collections of the world’s top art museums. It’s an amazing sight to see and wonder how someone could spend so much time working on this project featuring over 1,100 works – from modern installation works to Egyptian artifacts. Students with the Clemson Architecture Center in Charleston added much to the success of this exhibit by designing and constructing a structure to house and present these mini reproductions of art. Magnifying glasses are provided.

It kind of reminded me of a flea circus of the arts. “Step right up – for just five cents you can watch fleas reproduce the greatest artworks known to man.”

From this library I ventured over to the Redux Contemporary Art Center at 136 St. Philip Street to see, The Constructed Image, featuring works by five American photographers who challenge the concept of truth – as documented by the medium of photography. Photos don’t lie – right?

I ran into a snag here. There was a note on the door announcing – “out to lunch – be right back.” I was beginning to run out of time and this was the last day of this exhibit.

I went back to the College of Charleston to see the exhibit, Calin Dan, at the Halsey Institute for Contemporary Art, but this space was already closed for the day. The exhibit is up through June 20, 2008, but I doubt I’ll get to see it. Deadlines!

I went over to Marion Square, at the intersection of Calhoun, Meetings and King Streets to visit the Piccolo Spoleto Outdoor Art Exhibit 2008, for the third time. I took some pictures and talked to a few artists. Considering how bad things could have been this year for this show – it seems things went all right. Not great, but all right. There were a lot of artists there with works that caught my attention. New artists from the Lowcountry and new artists from around South Carolina. Even artists all the way from the Upstate – Greenville and Seneca. Slowly this show has gotten more diverse – offering anyone something that fits their taste in art. This show is also a great place for me to get a sounding of how the visual art community is doing and what the artists are up to – from year to year. It’s interesting watching the growth of some artists, seeing how some can still surprise you, and catching up on gossip. There’s lots of gossip to be had.

This show is the “Iron-man/woman” event of the visual arts. Imagine spending the span of three weekends – outside in Charleston’s weather – sometime good – sometimes brutal. There are good crowds on the weekends but the middle of the week can be like being stuck on a ship with Ulysses during the doldrums. An artist can begin to wonder if they will ever make another sale, and then they see that familiar face walking their way – a return customer. And, life is good again. They have the wind in their face once more.

For me, a visit to this show can be torture. Linda and I have a great collection of art, but my eye – it feels I’m shortchanging it. It sees things it wants – things it covets. My eye has seen works made by some of these artists and it remembers – I have to walk away in shame. I spend a lot of time convincing my eye – someday – someday things will be different. Someday, you will not just look. But this is a burden I carry everywhere I go. It’s a curse – it’s the eyes are too big for your wallet syndrome.

Back at Redux, the door was open this time for The Constructed Image, featuring works by Luis Gispert, Daniel Gordon, Lori Nix, Chris Scarborough, and Nathan Baker. Talk about being the last hour of the last day – this was the last 15 minutes, but they kept the doors open a little longer. I’m glad they did.

That old saying – photos don’t lie – well, maybe to most people who don’t know anything about photography, but to the people who know – photographs have been lying since the beginning of the camera’s invention. Just like many painters take liberties with their subjects – so have some photographers. Imagine Matthew Brady dragging dead bodies of soldiers from a Civil War battle to make the scene look better for the photograph. It happened.

In this case, some of the photographers constructed the entire image to be photographed – controlling every small detail of the image, where others used modern technology to manipulate the image – after the fact. If you’re good at it – the average viewer will never know – left to wonder how the photographer was so lucky to catch such an image. Isn’t that what cameras do – capture images in a moment of time?

I hope a lot of people managed to see this exhibit – I was glad I did – just in the nick of time. I understand the exhibit got some national attention in Wired magazine which drew some people to Charleston to see this exhibit. How nice that they had the bonus of the Spoleto and Piccolo Festivals too.

That was it – that’s all I could see in my short window of opportunity.

One final thought. It’s a shame that with Charleston being the destination of the most art savvy audience to visit South Carolina each year that more people in the visual arts community around the state don’t take advantage of this audience. It’s a challenge with limited formal exhibition space, but it would be the best time and location for a sampler exhibition of the state’s best artists. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could have transported the SC State Museum’s juried exhibition to Charleston during the festivals. Now that would have been a wonderful opportunity for the artists and festival visitors alike.

I’ve always thought that Charleston would be the perfect location for a state art museum. Just thinking out loud.

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