I am ashamed to admit that when I walked into the South Carolina Watermedia Society’s Annual Exhibition at City Gallery, I was expecting to see walls hung with banal watercolor landscapes, interspersed with the occasional vague depiction of marshgrass, or the ocean — the kind of art practiced by aristocratic lady and gentleman painters.
I could not have been more wrong. The artworks on display are hugely diverse and all products of strong talent, without a mediocre piece in the bunch. Works range from the abstract to realist portraiture, in a wide variety of media. What landscapes there are (and don’t get me wrong — I love landscape art) are neither banal nor vague, and take their scenes from California and the North Carolina mountains. It is, in short, a wonderful surprise and an impressive display of the artistic talent in South Carolina, North Carolina, and Georgia, the states from which the Watermedia Society draws its membership.
The name of the Watermedia Society refers to the artistic media that it accepts: watercolor, acrylic, gouache (a type of heavier watercolor), casein (a water-based paint derived from milk protein) and mixed-media used in conjunction with any sort of watermedia. Considering this restriction, it’s amazing to see the huge difference in effects that the artists were able to produce. One of my favorite pieces is a portrait of a young girl by Vickie Bailey Ebbers, called “Tween,” that has the minute detail and depth that one associates with colored pencil, rather than watercolor. Another piece, Kathy Caudill’s “Raindrops Over the Catawba,” displays a similarly sharp clarity in the depiction of a quiet riverscape. At the other end of the spectrum is a painting of a California redwood that points to the giant tree’s surrealistic existence with bold greens and reds exploding off a purplish-hued, shaggy-barked trunk.
But though nature is a popular subject, it’s certainly not the only one. Abstract mixed-media pieces abound, ranging from the whimsical and girlish to the dark and metallic. More traditional portraits focus on the softness and age of older women, the innocence of young girls, and the companionship between people and animals. Brenda Gilliam’s “Café 1,” of a trendy-looking guy momentarily distracted from his book and espresso, could almost be called pop art. And hyperrealism finds a place as well, in Steve Garner’s “Several Sea Trout in Hiding.”
The Society’s annual exhibitions are juried, which explains the high standard maintained throughout this quite large show. This year’s was judged by Mary Alice Braukman, a watercolor painter and collage artist from Florida with ties to the North Carolina mountains. In her judge’s statement, Braukman says she looked for “uniqueness in subject, style, as well as strong composition and good design,” and she fulfilled those requirements to a tee despite the surely monumental size of her task. If the exhibition is large enough to fill the beautiful and spacious City Gallery, how many works must she have combed through to make her selections?
If you prefer art as a challenge, a riddle, or even an act of aggression on your sense of self, there is nothing here for you. If, however, you enjoy looking at pleasing compositions executed with great talent, then this is your show.