Each spring for two decades, artists Carl Palazzolo and the late Stephen Mueller would come to Charleston during the Spoleto Festival and — when not visiting friends and going to performances — settled into the first floor of David and Carol Rawle’s downtown home to make art.
Each year the Rawles picked paintings the pair had created to keep, and several years ago it dawned on David Rawle that this continuous body of work would make a great exhibition. The result is The Spoleto Watercolors of Stephen Mueller and Carl Palazzolo consisting of about 35 small, semi-abstract paintings on display at the Gibbes Museum of Art through Sept. 15. The exhibition is located in two rooms off the museum rotunda area, with each artist getting one of the rooms.
One morning during this year’s Spoleto Festival, Palazzolo was — as he has been for so many years — at a worktable in the Rawle’s Anson Street home working away. The historic surroundings, colors of buildings and flowers, the humidity, the music they’d hear and dance they’d see all went into making the paintings.
“The biggest impact on my work was the color,” Palazzo says. “My work generally isn’t as high key — the grays became more lavender, the greens deeper.”
“I think these are very distinctive from what we did in the rest of our lives,” continues the artist, who has shown continuously over the past 40 years, including in the Whitney Biennial. “We always referred to them as the ‘Spoleto watercolors’ and the majority of watercolors we did were done in Charleston.”
In his works Palazzolo juxtaposes abstract images and rich color fields with trompe l’oeil techniques and collage — or what looks like collage, but is not. Mueller’s paintings, often inspired by his interest in Eastern philosophy, feature references to mandalas and bodhisattva figures, and mix delicate washes of color with sharp contrasts and simplified shapes.
The idea for the show was the idea of David Rawle, founder of Rawle Murdy, a marketing and public relations company who met the artists in New York during the 1970s.
“They were scattered all over the house so it was hard to tell just how many we had,” he says. “I just thought ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to see them all together?’” He approached Gibbes Museum Director Angela Mack and Spoleto Festival General Director Nigel Redden, who were both supportive of the exhibition.
The first time Palazzolo saw all the work together was when it was installed at the museum.
“It was overwhelming and pretty emotional,” he says, especially in light of Mueller’s death in late 2011. “We really wanted to make this happen when he was still with us, but it was not to be.”
The Spoleto springtime sojourns have provided a fountain of creativity and a break from the urban life they were living in New York.
“We’d get up and work in the morning with nothing on our mind except where to get lunch, visit friends, and go to performances at night,” Palazzolo says. “Every year in Charleston has been like the perfect residency.”