It's Tuesday night, June 26, and Lower King is a good place to be. At Cumberlands, a benefit's being held for a new skate park. By the end of the night, the Pour it Now organization will raise over $1,100 for a proposed downtown park. On the bill: Decorated Dirt, God Help Us, Motormouth Mabel, and The Hybrid Mutants. The show's spilled out onto the street, where patrons lean against the windows swigging bottles of beer, fending off bare-faced pups who've forgotten their fake IDs.
Just up the street, the Upper Deck Tavern — a dive if ever there was one — entices people in with screenprinted posters on either side of the entrance. Scrawled on the black and white posters are the words "Free and Cheap Art Show." Free and cheap? The starkly enigmatic invites have grabbed enough attention to pack the place. In the long, narrow passageway that leads to the second-floor watering hole, the walls and floor are adorned with more monochrome images by the week's guest artist, John Pundt.
At the top of a flight of stairs, a table is stacked with flyers, cards, T-shirts, posters, and stickers. Most of the loot is free, but that doesn't denigrate its quality. Pundt understands the importance of disseminating his art, getting it out there on the street (often literally), not just keeping it tucked away in a studio or gallery.
To get to the bar, you have to run a gantlet of the artist's images. His posters are pasted all over the walls, overlapping each other, with larger, framed work on top. There are pop culture cameos from Jack Skellington, Bambi, Frankenstein's monster, and Audrey Hepburn. In another striking piece, a subway train zips out of a three-eyed creature's earhole. A "Darling Pet Monkey" sits on the palm of someone's hand. A few prints by ex-Charlestonian Kevin Taylor and Pundt's posters for the likes of Rob Zombie, BlowFly, and White Boy Crazy brighten up the otherwise muted palette. But in this show, colored inks are no match for Pundt's colorful ideas.
The West Ashley resident has a knack for boiling an idea down into highly visual, symbolic morsels. Best example: a print he hastily conceived for Yo! What Happened to Peace, a touring international exhibition of handcrafted antiwar and anti-occupation art. In "'Til Death Broke Her Heart," the skeleton of a girl is riding a rocking horse. The death of innocence meets a horsewoman of the Apocalypse in one powerful picture. The materials are bleach and the artist's blood.
The behind-the-scenes hero of the Free and Cheap Art Show is Ben James (a.k.a. DJ/musician Ice Bread), who has worked from midnight to 6 a.m. pasting up the posters. As the driving force behind music and art production company Fear Fear, James has been producing Upper Deck art shows every week for the past couple of months. He's a little fried.
"We did a group show at Christmas," he says, referring to There Is No God, which included Pundt, Taylor, and painter/photographer/video artist Cara Levy. "I had friends coming into town," he explains, "and there was nothing for them to do after they'd seen their families." So they got dragged to James' show and helped make it a success. James and his then-associate Chris Morris set up a few more exhibitions in New York, gradually building momentum for Fear Fear. Since May 22, he's been devoting a show per week to a different artist: Sharen Mitchell, Savannah Russell, Levy, Pundt, and others. He'll now switch to monthly exhibitions in the same space. Several artists have expressed an interest in getting involved, Julio Cotto among them.
Although James maintains that he keeps producing the events "just for fun," the sweat and energy he puts into them say otherwise. The Tavern space is bright, avoiding the traditional bar show problem of keeping art in gloomy corners. But it's small enough to pack with material, with room left over for turntables and a couch-load of barflies.
At the end of the night the passageway is almost bare. All the posters have been swiped by people on their way out. But the ideas remain as well as those powerful images, burned into our three-eyed brains.