VISUAL ARTS ‌ Whistlering in the Dark 

A solo exhibit hews closely, sometimes too closely, to its influences

Sharon Lacey: Cruciform Paintings
City Gallery at the Dock Street Theatre
133 Church St
On view through May 12

Short crosses. Skinny crosses. White crosses. Black crosses. Judging by her current solo show, which opened just in time for Easter, Sharon Lacey's got a thing for crosses. She's turned the Dock Street Theatre's City Gallery into a staging area for multiple games of tic-tac-toe, mostly using ideas that have been getting traction for centuries.

Lacey is a Charleston native who teaches drawing and painting at the College of Charleston. She's a self-confessed technique freak who endeavors to use "very traditional materials," and she's got enviable stats on She's earned this exhibition with a strong academic grounding in art and literature.

After graduating from the New York Academy of Art with an MFA in 2001, her initial interest in large-scale, 19th-century traditional work shifted to more modest, abstract work. As a starting point she referred to James Abbott McNeill Whistler's nocturnes for the palette, and that influence can be seen in her exhibit of oils on linen, Cruciform Paintings, five years later.

One of the best-known nocturnes, "Old Battersea Bridge" is her cue for some of the pieces. "Blue Tau Cross" mists up the crucifixion with a solitary cross shrouded in blue. "Three Minus One" is a more complex variation on the bridge image, with the horizontals of three crucifixes mirroring a span for a different kind of crossing. This time, the blue fog obscures the central subject (the "Minus One") but you can still make out the gist of a body on each cross, harkening back to Lacey's figurative days.

Like any abstract work, it's up to the viewer to make sense of the painted details. With her scratchy, multilayered technique Lacey gives "X" and the coffee stain-colored "Single Tau Cross" a Turin Shroud-like vagueness, where a pale space could be a Messianic face or nothing at all.

This transparency is a hallmark of the show. There isn't quite enough content to make the flat-looking paintings genuinely compelling, and the well-worn theme doesn't necessarily help. If anything, Lacey's references to Whistler and the modernists are too prescribed to tell us much about her own aesthetic ideas. She follows the rules, but that doesn't always make the paintings successful. For example, "White Crosses" breaks the canvas into thirds, with the subject in the lower segment. The perspective should make sense, but the effect doesn't really work, reminding us that sometimes the rules have to be bent to create a good painting.

Still, there are several successful offerings on display. "Double Crosses" features a white crucifix intersected by a stark black shadow in a small-scale study that could be construed as a powerful comment on race. "X" is a welcome variation on the cross motif, possibly connoting the Confederate flag.

The artist has included a few Rembrandt-referencing graphites, with subjects in 17th-century clothing. One of them, "Woman Hanging on a Gibbet," is the most direct take on the Old Master's work; "The Deposition" and "The Raising of the Cross" are imbued with more of Lacey's personality, portraying hunched-up peasants as they get stuck into the crucifixion story. Their stances under the weight of the cross gives "Raising" a vibe similar to the iconic "Iwo Jima" photograph, with a palpable sense of struggle.

In general, we're left with the kind of exercise a professor of drawing and painting might give her students: creating variations on classical works, informed by the contemporary attitudes of the artists. If this was a class project, it would be highly commendable. But as a showcase for someone who's clearly a deep-thinking, Academy-trained local artist with a great deal to say, it's not as satisfying as one would hope. Like "Three Minus One," there's too much fog and not enough content showing through.


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