Benjamin Hollingsworth is covered in drips. Most likely, the white spots that stain his hands, his jacket, and his Nike sneakers aren't even paint, but instead come from all sorts of other sources. For his City Gallery show Grace, Hollingsworth has taken to his Neck-area studio to produce multimedia pieces, employing new methods not seen by his Charleston audience in the past.
The self-taught artist and former Charleston Battery player has garnered both local and national attention for his hectic paintings of American and religious iconography. However, because of the limitations of the City Gallery space — it's large, but the ceilings and lighting are low — Grace couldn't just be a show of 2-D work. Instead, Hollingsworth has been doing more fabricating and hands-on building for installations, and that's allowed him to branch out and work with different materials.
The installations employ everyday objects that serve a specific purpose, but then Hollingsworth removes that intention, infusing them with new meaning. For one piece, Hollingsworth went through 10 different pairs of shoes that he'd saved up over the years. He's also been working with rubber molds (silicone, polyester, polyurethane, and other polys-), different types of plastic, marble dust, aluminum sheets, copper stripping, wood, and ceramics. He's ordered different types of resins from industrial companies in Florida, and he's worked with two-part foam and one-part foam. "And there's a huge difference between the two, which we found out," he says. "You burn two-part foam, it creates cyanide. Someone told me that just by chance. Of course, we made sure to write that one on the board: Don't burn two-part foam."
The outcomes of such tests aren't always what Hollingsworth imagined, so he's had to change directions numerous times. Had he gone to art school, it's possible these techniques would be second nature him. But by making mistakes, Hollingworth can look back and say, "I arrived at this because of that."
The results may be unpredictable, but Hollingsworth hasn't approached these foreign substances like some sort of mad scientist — he has a clear vision of what he wants his art to look like, even if getting there has taken some experimentation. "I knew exactly what I wanted to do from square one, but it's working with material and seeing all the possibilities," he says. "Slowly, you narrow it down and you narrow it down."
From these descriptions, it may be hard to picture what Grace will look like, especially since Hollingsworth hasn't released too many images of the show prior to its Saturday opening. It's meant to be vague, because Hollingsworth doesn't want to spoon feed its meaning to the audience. "The way I think about art is here's the aesthetic of it and here's the meaning behind it," he says. A central theme of the show is what the individual makes out of an object.
And Grace needs to be seen in the gallery. There are a lot of little pieces that make up the exhibition, adding up to one whole — Grace is about how these works relate to one another. "Some of it's like a magician revealing his tricks," Hollingsworth says. "You will see some of the installations as they are, the pieces as they are, but you'll also see the fuck-ups. Hopefully, you'll see how I work through some of the material." And while there will still be some of those larger 2-D pieces that Hollingsworth is known for, they may be presented in ways that his Charleston audience isn't used to.
When Hollingsworth first submitted the show to the City Gallery two years ago, after participating in Piccolo Spoleto's Contemporary Charleston exhibition, he thought it would be a special opportunity to have the whole gallery to himself, especially since it would allow him to do larger works. But Hollingsworth was a different artist back then, one who was still in a honeymoon period that he's since moved past. "It's a fucking grind," he says of his career. "For me it's not like it's gotten easier. It just gets harder, because you realize how much stuff you want to do and how little time you have or even the resources."
Consequently, the initial ideas behind Grace may have changed, especially since putting it together has been such a long planning process. The title remains relevant, though. "Some people think it has some sort of religious connotation," he says. "Someone's going to think this thing or someone's going to reference whatever they want to, whether it's a Muslim thing or if it's Grace Under Fire, the sitcom."
"But I think a lot of that just people forget the idea of grace," he adds. "It's almost like mercy in a way. It's like an unconditional thing."
It's been a while since Charleston has seen a show of such breadth from Hollingsworth. The artist may work in the city, but he currently has an apartment in New York City's Chinatown with his girlfriend. He had an art studio in Bushwick, but doing the work there was a completely different experience, and personal reasons kept bringing him back to the Lowcountry anyway. The local workspace was meant to be temporary, but he's kept adding to it and fixing it up. "Everything in New York is twice as much," Hollingsworth says. "Getting your groceries takes two hours. Whereas here, I'm in my studio 7 a.m. to 11 at night." Now, he'll spend three to four weeks in Charleston working non-stop before returning North. When he's in New York, Hollingsworth's mind is still always in his work, and his returns to Charleston are always met with a sense of urgency to get things done. "It's been a lot of flights through Spirit, taking the train, catching rides with friends."
As Grace will show, Hollingsworth is an artist in transition, and he's still trying to figure out where he fits into the art equation. "Whether I'm here or whether I'm in New York or whatever, at the same time, you're either in or you're out," he says. "And for me, I've got way too much invested in this to just lollygag. Now I'm just more hungry. Working with this stuff, you see the possibilities. Man, there's so much more shit I want to get done."