You couldn't put clothes in them. They were cumbersome to carry around. Some of them were filled with bugs or strange brassieres. So what use were the suitcases in last week's Suitcase Show?
The answer is there wasn't any, and that's how curator Phillip Hyman likes it.
A lot of things have changed in Charleston's art scene since Hyman hosted the first Suitcase Art Show at Cumberland's four years ago. The music venue/bar on King Street was right next door to vintage clothing store Granny's Goodies, which donated 30 old suitcases for the 2006 exhibition.
Artists transformed the cases into unique fold-out paintings, dioramas, shrines, and sculptures. Some focused on decorating the outside of the case, while others crammed colorful baubles inside. Participants included Hyman, Jonathan Nicholson, Eleazar Cruz, and Phillip Estes. Geoff Cormier contributed one with a shadow puppet. On opening night, live music was provided by local musical acts Lindsay Holler, A Decent Animal, and Sleepyhead.
By late 2007, Granny's Goodies was gone and Cumberland's was closing its doors. An Apple store now sits in its place. Corporate uniformity has taken the place of rock and punk bands, mystery beers, and heavy metal karaoke.
In March of this year, Hyman revived the Suitcase Show for one night only at the Olde North Charleston Meeting Place on East Montague Avenue. Hyman, who curated a TV-themed exhibition at the same site last year, wanted to let people know about the cases like "a traveling salesman," circumventing the traditional art show invitational approach — meaning no advertising, no call for entries, not even a Facebook post. "A lot of artists you usually see in the paper lately didn't respond," he says. "Instead we got the ones that are hungry and doing it for art's sake." People didn't come just to drink and pose — they came for the art and music courtesy of Subterranean Bleu Mind(s), founded by hip hop/groove duo DizZyDeTaiLs and Halfblind, who back their act with projected light patterns.
Three weeks before the show, Hyman picked up a CD of Bleu music that would inspire a stack of live art. "A major part of the concept for me was to showcase the music by painting to it, and have people looking at it as part of the art show, putting it in a different realm," he says.
Live painting to music has been popular at recent events like Blume and Kulture Klash, but in those shows Hyman points out that the artists "aren't really trying to tell a story." At the new Suitcase Show, the music was presented as an artform accompanied by the paintings, and the audience went with the flow. "The crowd followed us around without anyone telling them what was going on," says the curator. "I've never seen that before."
The artist and audience demographic spanned 9-year-old schoolchildren to first-time adult artists to old hands. Some came wearing gray pants and Dockside shirts, others with torn jeans and pierced faces. The suitcase art was just as diverse, with contributions from Geoff Cormier, Leigh Wells, and many others. Most impressive was Hyman's steampunk case, lit from within with delicate cogs and wheels like the baggage of his ever-inventive mind.
Hyman isn't the only indie curator in town, but more than anyone else, he inspires artists to make art for the sheer pleasure of making it instead of moping around worrying about buying materials, advertising budgets, gallery showings, or exhibiting to the "right people." For the rest of us, he offers a reminder that art doesn't even have to have a physical substance — it can consist of sound or light — and it certainly doesn't have to be framed or hung on a wall to move its viewers. It can be constructed out of donations from a vintage clothing store, an old TV set, or even packed up in a suitcase.