Solid skills and bursts of color in this year's Young Contemporaries 

Playing It Safe

Young Contemporaries 2009
Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art
On view through April 24
54 St. Philip St.
(843) 953-5680

Every year, the Halsey surrenders its walls to the CofC's Studio Art Department. Any current student is eligible to submit work, and the results always reflect a variety of styles and working methods.

Juror Brian Rutenberg is an alumnus and a celebrated painter now based in New York. He is adept at capturing moods with abstract landscapes in lush, deep colors, so it's no surprise he's chosen some striking oil paintings for this diverse and entertaining show.

But don't be fooled by the vivid, blocky images you see when you first walk into the gallery. Sarah Haynes' two large oil paintings depict muscular figures who are ready to spring off the canvas in a flame-hued frenzy. Most of this year's entrants, though, have chosen subdued palettes, black and white studies, or monochrome photos to demonstrate their skill.

William Parker Sullivan, first prize winner in the show's President's Choice awards, provides the most ingenious piece of the year. A light shines through scrap metal to create a silhouetted form in "General Anesthesia." It could be an abstract shape, a cave mouth, or a Jack Kirbyesque monster, with iron mesh pores and heavy metal hair. It's a good amalgamation of sculpture and two-dimensional art that deserves to be a centerpiece of the exhibition.

For the most part, the students play it safe. There's a lot of competent, traditional work, like Jim Stewart's fruity "Still Life" (oil on canvas), Nicole Healy's delicate pencil on paper "Virgin & Child," and Sarah Vining's untitled photographic snowscape. That means there are no poorly wrought attempts to be clever, but there's no great innovation here either.

The photography comes off best this year, with striking portraits by Marshall Thomas and Sara McGregor. Thomas' "Untitled (Reference)" (gelatin silver print) features a male nude with a cord wrapped around his face. The model would be anonymous if not for the tattoo on his torso.

The black-and-white image is memorable and well-composed. McGregor's "Girl with a Plastic Earring" is meticulously lit. The sepia-tinted piece looks like a WPA-era photograph and captures the youth and vitality of its subject.

Printmaking is best represented by Isa Salazar, whose "Bird" monoprint makes memorable use of abstract shapes, building a nature scene out of dark splashes on a light brown background. There are plenty of strong drawings as well; Katherine Hegquist's expressive charcoal "Self Portrait" is well placed at the top of the stairs. Sarah K. Biggers "ISBN ND 1170" is impressive by sheer dint of its detail — it's a heaving charcoal-drawn bookcase, complete with titles on the spines.

The flamboyant oil paintings stand out from the grey crowd. George Davis' untitled landscape is dark and moody, with a burnished orange sunlight reflected on a dark sea. Heavily textured black and white clouds drift overhead while a blue sky peeps through the angry tableau. Timothy Pakron's "From Flesh" shows shiny blood drooling from a chin. All we see is the lower half of a face, which leaves us begging to know the story.

As with any art show of this scale, there are some misses mixed in with the hits. Vining's photo of the Angel Oak has an overexposed background. The composition in Thomas' "Untitled (Migration)" shot is strangely off-balance. Emily Carrig's "Heart Jar" takes a neat conceit — a heart with a black hole — but the result is too misshapen to really resonate.

Young Contemporaries always seems crammed to the gills with enthusiastic work, but this year a couple of pieces couldn't even fit in the Halsey. These sculptures make clever use of carpet padding (Lauren Moore's "Adit Anew," on the second floor outside the gallery) and moss (Jim Stewart's "G'rillas Gone Wild" in the George Street Courtyard).

As if that weren't enough, there's a Salons des Refuses for art that didn't quite make it into the main show. The Salon's high point is a pedestal's worth of plaster Barbies by L. Brittany Saxon, looking as they really should at 50 years old: fat, haggard, and dressed for the beach in a bright pink bikini. These dolls should really have made it into the gallery proper.

Young Contemporaries reflects a department that emphasizes the solid basics of art education, and it would be great to see the exhibitors using these principles as a starting point to develop more inventive work next year.


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