There are more official Piccolo art exhibitions than usual this year, but only a small number of independent galleries are running special shows to coincide with the festival. For the rest, it's business as usual — Lowcountry art that tourists actively come looking for in between catching a Spoleto performance.
King Street's Richard James Galleries have taken a quirky route, displaying loud, fanciful figurative art alongside more traditional oils. New Gallery Director Nancy O'Neil is under orders to shake the place up, and she's highlighting five fascinating artists at the moment. Jack Dowd's sculptures include dogs with human faces. Miki Boni paints clowns and mythical creatures. The other artists in the Plus 5 show, running through June 4, are Charles Pabst, Tom Paulsin, and Ellen Kaiden.
The art of Kaiden and Honor Marks may stem from the same subject matter, but the results are very different. Kaiden's flowers are unashamedly gaudy; Marks' are luminescent, seething with energy highlighted by dark, moody backgrounds. The Audubon Gallery, also on King, is running a solo exhibition of Marks' work through June 15, showing her grasp of meticulous botanical art in conjunction with warm, lively painting techniques. Indigenous Treasures from the South Carolina Forest Floor is a follow up of sorts to last year's Circular Congregational Church event, Wild Things and Wonder, where visitors took a "nature walk" around her delicate artwork. There's one exquisite example of her art at the Church's Inconvenient Truth this year.
Mary Walker also concerns herself with wild things in Variations on a Theme, incorporating birds, butterflies and the accessibility of opera into her collages. In last year's Carolina Umbra retrospective she juxtaposed text with her art and helped bring the words to life; here she does the same with Piccolo's Spotlight concerts. Her Variations can be found at the Footlight Players Theatre through June 10.
Another official show worth a look — especially if you attended last year's festival — is a collection of photojournalism student Myles Little's photos at the Dock Street Theatre's Charles Wadworth Room, on view through June 10. He's at his best capturing people when they're not aware of the camera. These photos are spontaneous, fun, and full of emotion. Little also excels at arranging objects — the red hats and purple/lilac-draped shoulders of six anonymous ladies are composed with neat symmetry.
Elaine Berlin's "Rembrandt's Favorite" is the official Piccolo poster art for 2007. Her accompanying show is also at the Dock Street, on the ground floor. Most of her work could be described as a repetitive collection of geometric windows, perhaps inspired by the windows she glances out of while at her day job at Berlin's for Men and Women on King.
Her "Broken Fences" series is the most memorable in the show, using high-angle perspectives on a quilted ground of pinks and greens, complimented by a blue sky. "Broken Fences #2" repeats the motif but has a different palette, night stars, falling snowflakes, and a tic-tac-toe scattering of railings.
After an unexceptional show last year, the Viewpoint project has pulled its socks up in Kids With Cameras, at the Main Library on Calhoun until June 16. In this initiative, children from the Charleston Developmental Academy and the Meeting Street Manor Housing Authority Residence are mentored by photographers. The kids seem more inspired this time round, capturing lots of ankle-level angles with care and precision. Pics of streets, steps, boats, beaches, and neighborhood friends combine to create a strong sense of their environment.
Last year, Béa Aaronson's work was all over town during Spoleto and the local artist makes her presence felt this year, too, in a more focused form. Spark Studios on Hagood Avenue is running Metamorphoses through June 26, with "sculptural explorations" by Aaronson and fellow artist Stephen Eaker. There's more exploring going on in Old Charleston New Visions at 121 Alexander St; both exhibitions contain new sculptures and wall sculptures, which Aaronson describes as "big, whimsical, and thought provoking."
Scott Debus beats Aaronson hands-down in the whimsical stakes. He's not afraid to show works in progress, brainstorm-style drawings and bold, experimental art at the Bogard Street Gallery. He's planning a move from 53 Bogard St., so Unaffected Truth provides the last chance to see his work at the present location. Contemporary artists like Julio Cotto, Jarod Charzewski, Mark Johnson, Jeremy Hogan, and Seth Corts join him in this show. It's packed with more ideas than a Mensa brain trust on a think binge.
Pundt's also a contributor to Tricks of the Trade, an underground "Sub-Spoleto" show that runs from June 1-3, 6-10 p.m. in two venues: Muddy Waters Cafe at 1739 Maybank Hwy. and City Lights Café at 141 Market St. The theme for both spaces is advertising and the graphic codes of the corporate world. Everyone's aware that sex sells products, but there are many other techniques the admen use to screw us out of our money: shock, lurid scandal, fear-mongering, and the constant, wallet-numbing repetition of images and brands. This show highlights them all, while simultaneously perpetuating the cross-pollination between art and the commercial arena.
The artists involved are capable of imaginative and surprising work, so it's a delight to see this fringe-of-the-fringe budding, if only for a few days. It's a timely comment on the commercialism of Spoleto, where the whole city's plastered with ads for the Festival.
Philip Hyman, another artist in Tricks of the Trade, has brightened up the second story windows of Read Brothers on Upper King. A blue baby and other ghostly human forms hover over striking landscapes. The other storefront worth a look is Magar Hatworks at 557 King St., where Molly B. Right has placed examples of her bottlecap portraits. They're complex and colorful enough to transcend the folk art origins of the medium and evoke beauty.
Further up King, local photographer Jack Alterman is showing black-and-white and color portraits in his show, Faces of the Lowcountry. His Center for Photography is a great resource for artists and viewers alike, and Faces packs in a culmination of a quarter century of his sterling work. It blends studio portraits with out-and-about shots of people in their regular places of life and work. The show will run through June 11 at the Center, 654-D King St.
Compared to last year, there's more imagination and a willingness to experiment in all these shows. It's great to see art that's in store windows and out in the streets, not just neatly tucked away in art galleries. The next step would be for festival organizers and independent galleries to experiment with the format of their shows; Tricks of the Trade's two-café span should encourage visitors to move from one location to another, a device that worked well in 2005's Piccolo sideshow act Alive Inside. The use of alternate spaces is another encouraging sight, helping to make Spoleto the all-around, senses-encompassing experience it should be.