From emotionally demanding political works to geometric grids to fluid, visceral figures dancing on canvas, the pieces in the George Gallery's Focus In exhibit explore Charleston's contemporary landscape.
On Sun., Feb. 19, South Carolina Secessionist Party members drove to the top of downtown parking garages, unfurling the stars and bars for what they deemed a "grand flagging." Greg Hart wonders how this is still happening in 2017.
A native of Greenville, S.C., graduate of the University of South Carolina, and Charleston resident for over a decade, the artist is no stranger to the region's iniquitous past, noting that "there's a difference between having a history you're aware of and a history you're proud of."
Hart, who typically paints colorful portraits or shoots stark black and white photographs, has added an entirely different collection to his oeuvre — six pieces ranging in medium (from collage to screen prints) and size — for the George Gallery's exhibit. Art as activism is nothing new, but since November, Hart feels the stakes are higher than ever: "I think that freedom of expression is such a big part of being an artist and I've taken it for granted in the past. With this body of work I'm trying to speak more directly. I don't want to waste the opportunity to do that."
"Look Away" is the most commanding piece of the new collection — the time between seeing and recognizing is seconds long. The viewer sees a police officer (clearly wearing a uniform) bending over a prostrate figure, then, given a Charleston context, recognizes Michael Slager bending over Walter Scott. The name of the painting is layered, the first layer being a reference to "Dixie," and then all the layers beneath: how does the South reconcile its centuries-old pains with 21st century realities?
Hart painted "Look Away" while listening to Senator Clementa Pinckney's speeches on Youtube: "I felt like there the series came together for me, through his words. It hits you at a gut level ... before Pinckney died he spoke extensively about the shooting and he said when you have someone get shot in the back, six, seven, eight times instead of checking to see if that person is OK, you handcuff them first. He was able to articulate it in a way that was much more meaningful for me."
Scott's painted body is already starting to blur at the edges, as though Hart captured him in the last moments of his life. Hart says that his rendering is "taken directly from the video ... here's this exact moment where two people's lives are obliterated in different ways. They both have families. It's just that moment ... that instant where everything is altered."
A huge drafting table occupies the majority of Alan Jackson's Redux Studio, acrylic on wood panels of varying sizes line the wall, all meticulously planned and then executed with a precision that is both calming and dizzying. Jackson, bespectacled in a button down and jeans, mirrors the zen of the room.
An architect by day, Jackson has been indulging his artistic proclivities after hours for the past 25 years, "I would do sketching with architecture, just as part of the job, and then I would come home at night and work in sketchbooks, drawing abstract doodles." As someone who specializes in drafting very specific plans for specific clients, Jackson felt that the only way to really "let loose" was to come home and draft his own plans, with no client to please on the other end.Jackson secured the Redux Studio primarily to work on his larger pieces for the Focus In show; he will present seven new works at the George Gallery, all imbued with an organic color palette and informed by a linear/geometric abstract aesthetic (rooted in architecture). The works are all born in Jackson's notebook, then laid out in graphite and pencil grids. "My approach is very formal," the artist says, "and there's a lot about Charleston's architecture and design that is very formal. But there's a contemporary feel, too. I feel my work is contemporary/modern in a historic context."
In the studio space adjacent to Jackson's, Kate Long Stevenson perches on a stool, all smiles in a smock and slip-on tennis shoes, cut out drawings scattered on the floor, the makings of a collage, "I'm still finishing up a couple of pieces for the show, two collages that were happy accidents," Stevenson laughs, "I tend to procrastinate."
In addition to the happy accidents, Stevenson's Focus In pieces are figurative and abstract amalgamations, a first for the artist: "I usually paint either figuratively or abstractly, but I've been painting really differently in the last year. I've been working on this whole new body of work, this new genre for me, before even knowing I was going to participate in the show."
The new works are vibrant, fluid, with two figures atop colorful, abstract strokes. The push and pull, Stevenson explains, is what drew her to experimenting with mixing the two aesthetics, "I want you to look at it and not necessarily see the figures. The viewer disassociates, pulls back and sees brush strokes, sees colors." The figures are all women, and most of the paintings include the same woman, striking two different poses. Stevenson works off of nude models, drawing or painting them within minutes in a fast, gestural way. She then renders these drawings onto the larger canvases, "it's different where they begin and where they end [on the canvas]. I'm not trying to make it perfect." The woman becomes women, with the curves of the body drawing the eye from corner, to center, to edge. "I don't want them to look like two separate entities," says Stevenson, "but they're not touching. It's a challenge; it's fun to see how that manifests both with color and composition."
And the figures are faceless. Stevenson says this helps the viewer disassociate, to step outside of themselves and what they know about themselves, about gender. Stevenson says often we want the pretty, the feminine, we want to be able to identify with the subject. But sans faces, the figures take on a larger role, they're strong, they're pure movement, the face is just as important as the torso, the slightly turned elbow, the curved shin bone. "I want it to feel a little bit angry," says Stevenson. The figures, so gestural, still have an edge when placed on top of the bright, choppy, abstract strokes. Maybe not angry, exactly, but fierce, daunting. Stevenson channels this kind of fierce energy while painting, blasting "fast classical" music and working simultaneously on several different pieces. "I joke that I spend more time at the end of my studio, looking at the paintings, then I do actually painting." And it makes sense, as her pieces force the viewer to step back, look away, then focus in.