Take a look around the galleries in Charleston and you'll see what appears to be a thriving, active community. More galleries are opening every year, and miraculously, they're staying open. Areas beyond the Peninsula are being catered to by forward-thinking, enthusiastically-run galleries like Coco's in Mt. Pleasant, Modernisme in West Ashley, and 10 Storehouse Row in North Chuck. But has the state of contemporary art really improved in recent years, or are we just kidding ourselves?
Seth Curcio, executive director of Redux Contemporary Art Center, thinks things are growing stronger. "I'm optimistic," he says, "with new programs, film screenings, and educational elements, we're helping to develop solidarity within the arts community. Support and numbers are growing immensely."
Redux plans to grab the attention of new supporters with premieres of Art:21 documentaries and special movie screenings like Daydream Nation, an enticing dollop of Swedish animation. Its next exhibition, Reorientation II, will feature seven artists who use its studios or are affiliated with the gallery in a follow-up to a similar 2006 show. Curator Lori Kornegay, a visiting assistant professor at the College of Charleston, helped select the art and organize the show.
The Halsey Institute's Fresh Work was a College of Charleston alumni exhibition held late that year. Although its contributors were still new to the professional art world, their work made a well-rounded show: digital animation by Matt Smithson, glass and bronze sculptures by Stephan Davis, and surreal blue landscapes by Townsend Davidson. Fresh Work, along with the Redux shows of that year, broadcasted a challenge to galleries, students, and other artists to inspire their audiences — not merely delight them.
The following year they met that challenge. 2005 saw an incredible cross-gallery Piccolo show encouraged by Halsey honcho Mark Sloan's fascination with sideshows. Alive Inside cropped up at Redux, the Halsey, RTW, Magar Hatworks, and the Music Farm.
At the same time, the Gibbes Museum of Art presented Beyond Representation, spanning a century of abstract art in the South that encompassed Roy Lichtenstein and Joan Miro as well as local artists William Halsey, Corrie McCallum, and Michael Tyzack. Two Redux founders, Seth Gadsden and Krist Mills, organized The Floating — a gathering of some of Charleston's leading contemporary lights including Bob Snead, Loren Schwerd, and Dorothy Netherland.
The Floating almost made up for the absence of Contemporary Charleston, a Piccolo show that had run for a couple of years in the City Gallery's space at the Dock Street Theatre. Gadsden and Mills' show was a sign of the future — progressive shows have become more hit-and-run, irregular affairs since then.
Yet with newcomers moving from big cities like New York and Chicago, stuff that seemed outré a few years ago is now acceptable and sellable. Contemporary artists have been sighted in mainstream commercial galleries. Fresh Work participant John Duckworth has had work shown at Robert Lange Studios. The artists of Redux hijacked the Mary Martin Gallery on Broad Street for Invasion last year, raising nary an eyebrow in the process. Modernisme has championed far-out art by Seth Curcio, Kevin Hoth, and Netherland, whose experimental paintings on glass have also been exhibited at the Greenville County Museum of Art.
Katie Lee was a co-curator of Fresh Work and is now one of the Halsey's on-staff curators. "Not only is it much easier to find contemporary art venues and contemporary artists living in Charleston," she says, "the community actually seems to have become more interested in contemporary art as a whole."
No longer is such art considered exclusive or weird. "A small part of this is the influx of people from other cities buying second homes or retiring to Charleston. More importantly though, it's the younger community who have stayed in Charleston and begun raising families that is open and interested in contemporary art."
With ex-fringe artists becoming part of the conventional gallery experience and the profile of underground artists increasing, who's there to fill the anti-establishment gap? Only new technology remains a relatively untapped medium in Charleston, and street art will always be controversial. But at least, as Lee has seen, there's now a solid interest for "'experimental', 'alternative' art that challenges the audience and encourages questions."
Art that does that deserves to be seen by as many people as possible. — Nick Smith