Beyond the Gallery resurfaces with a well-crafted show 

Art Squatters

martin ahrens' light-filled, Classic works are paired with more progressive pieces from Joyce Hall and Chris Dotson in Collective | Eclectic

Courtesy of The Real Estate Studio

martin ahrens' light-filled, Classic works are paired with more progressive pieces from Joyce Hall and Chris Dotson in Collective | Eclectic

Josh James is a young, determined, and dedicated Charleston art advocate. He represents a baker's dozen of talented artists, from traditional painters to sculptors to abstract dabblers. He's devoted to selling their work and building his reputation as a gallery manager. But he has no permanent space to show the art.

In an environment where book and electronics chains are suffering because more people shop online, James seems to be one step ahead of conventional galleries. Beyond the Gallery is a virtual space where he can display a practically unlimited amount of work, save thousands of dollars in rent, reach clients instantly, and expand his market far beyond French Quarter browsers. So why isn't he happy?

"I've been trying to get gallery shows in different places," he says. "I've been having a tough time getting the word out." For James, temporary physical spaces are an important part of marketing his artists — collectors get to see the work in the flesh, which has far more impact than a JPEG thumbnail. He's tested alternate venues like Tides on Charleston Harbor and pushed hard for a pop-up gallery during Spoleto.

"A company tried to charge us $2,000 for rent and charge us for utilities," says the Indiana University graduate, "plus 30 percent commission on anything we sold, and they wanted us to clean the place up — this was a boarded-up building. I would have had to sell several thousand dollars' worth of art in three weeks to cover the costs." Undaunted, James continues to look for properties with subsidized rent. In the meantime, he's put up a small but intriguing temporary exhibition in the Real Estate Studio, showcasing Chris Dotson, Joyce Hall, and Martin Ahrens.

Dotson provides an eclectic mix of paintings and media. His pieces read like a wall-length retrospective, from experimental abstracts and standard still lifes to colorful cubist riffs. But this is only a mere hint of Dotson's output. The Virginia native works with acrylics, ceramics, pen and ink, and graphite; at this show, oils predominate.

One of his most striking paintings is near the studio entrance. "The Social Lite" is an acrylic and oil diptych of a wistful-looking woman, patterns scratched into her brightly painted dress. Split over two canvases, she's like a blueblood volunteer sawn in half by a deft illusionist.

Dotson works more magic in "Interval I" and "Interval II," two playful mixed-media pieces that intertwine figures with subtle circles. He refines this idea in a larger, 36" x 24" painting, "The Bridge." A female form is surrounded by delightful circles and colors, suggesting different moods and attitudes.

The most accomplished paintings are the compact, realist "Blue Hand" and "Calcified Mind," which wouldn't look out of place in one of Robert Lange's better shows. Not all of Dotson's paintings are as successful — some, like "Canned Fish," look rushed and simplistic. But there are enough vibrant ideas here to stand out from his diverse collection.

The other two contributors to the show are married artists Hall and Ahrens. They give Collective | Eclectic its strongest thread with depictions of dancers. Hall leads the line with a warm-hued, rose-tinted series of figureworks. In "One Little Dancer," the subject's face is in shadow, but her poise is incredibly expressive.

Hall has studied and painted dogs, horses, and humans throughout her distinguished career; she founded the riding programs for the College of Charleston and the Citadel, eventually retiring to devote her time to art. It's been time well spent. She shows a mastery of shadow, reflections, and color in paintings like "Dancers in the Kitchen" and "Dancers and Flamingos."

Ahrens channels Edgar Degas with his oil-on-canvas "Dancer," which is accompanied by a charcoal study of the same female figure. Some of his work has a nostalgic, 1920s feel, such as "Yellow Hat" (pastel on paper), in which a woman's sharp features jut against her soft, feminine clothing and pastoral surroundings. "Park Bench" shimmers with fall colors of brown and pale yellow. Juxtaposed with Dotson's progressive art, Ahrens proudly represents a statelier age of dependable painting. He knows what works, and he's sticking with it.

So does James. Focused on establishing a foothold in our fickle market, he relies heavily on conservative art for this show. However, he includes enough variety to hook viewers. Like any good businessman, he's used a small opportunity to get people clamoring for more. He's also succeeded in showing some high-quality pieces by three of his most talented artists. Maybe he doesn't need a permanent gallery after all.


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