VISUAL ARTS REVIEW: The Warehouse Show 

Jump for Joy: An old warehouse gives new art a new home

click to enlarge Ishmael lights his spraypaint on fire to get a charred, mottled texture
  • Ishmael lights his spraypaint on fire to get a charred, mottled texture
The Warehouse Show
Through Jan. 17
By appointment; call for invitation
Eye Level Art
2143 Heriot St.
(843) 425-3576
www.eyelevelart.com

Drive north on King Street to Mike Elder's new gallery and you'll pass a tattoo parlor, a strip club, and a business that sells grave stones. The driveway leading up to the gallery, off Heriot Street, is made of dirt and hard-packed gravel. The building, a skeleton of corrugated steel, plastic, and wood, is surrounded by remnants of Charleston's industrial past. You can even hear a dog barking somewhere in the distance.

A warehouse set among a bevy of empty or barely occupied warehouses is not where you'd expect to find an exciting collection of contemporary art. You'd sooner expect to see used car parts than large-scale art in a spectrum of styles, emotions, and media. But that reversal of expectation is by design.

The owner of Eye Level Art, a gallery located in the posh French Quarter, Elder wants to serve people with a passion for contemporary art. By expanding into this much grittier and much larger warehouse venue, he can more precisely control interactions between viewer and art, because the warehouse show is by appointment and invitation only.

"Art can be so manipulative," Elder says. "It's hard to experience it in the right way. People are here, because they want to be here. They are seeking me out. And here I can help them understand the art."

Call it the contemporary art market's version of "if you build it, they will come."

Elder, who grew up in the suburbs of Buffalo, took over Eye Level two summers ago. He's an interior designer by trade, but a lover and dealer of new art by profession. From the beginning, his aim was to build an audience. Even though it's ideally suited for tourists (a majority of his sales comes from visitors), his Queen Street gallery was simply too small to display large-scale works on canvas. Nor was it possible to construct a seamless, unabridged view of a single artist's work on one large wall.

As a relative newcomer to Charleston, Elder also discovered two things: one, a bevy of artists creating contemporary work; two, a paucity of venues in which to sell it.

And indeed, in this way, he's right. A simple stroll south of Broad confirms suspicions of the city's predilection for traditional modes of expression, especially in painting. Marshscapes, anecdotal evidence suggests, are like assholes.

Everyone's got one.

By setting aside this new warehouse space, Elder was better able to capitalize on the talents of such artists as Caryn Smith, Christopher Murphy, Kevin Harrison, and photographer Brownie Harris. For Elder, this is more than a business venture — It's a chance to make a statement as well.

"Why does art have to be about being in Charleston," he says, having in mind, no doubt, an image of the ubiquitous marshscape. "We're in a market starved for new and affordable art."

I met Elder at the warehouse Friday after learning of the official opening on Nov. 30. It's a large space with high ceilings, track lighting, and interior walls made of plywood painted eggshell white. While Elder was explaining his business and aesthetic vision — a plan that includes offering smaller works for young, discerning, and budget-minded art collectors — we were joined by Bart Parnall, an artist who uses expanding PVC foam to create three-dimensional "paintings" of surprising serenity and grace.

click to enlarge Tyler Blanton's dance background imbues her paintings with movement
  • Tyler Blanton's dance background imbues her paintings with movement

Monochromatic in tone and smooth in texture, his work is cut, sanded, and arranged into shapes like sailing vessels or golf courses, but also in abstract forms, like a long and narrow work that suggests Stonehenge. The foam, a material used as a sealant in construction, allows Parnall minute and detailed control: clean, straight lines, uniform color, delicate composition. It's also slightly reflective, which deepens the three-dimensional shadows and strengthens the effect of the art's popping out of the wall.

Standing in front of about a dozen of Parnall's works, I got a strong grasp of his sensibility — muted, placid, reserved, even Spartan. I don't think the frisson would have been as concentrated had I encountered pieces juxtaposed haphazardly among another artists' paintings (though there were too many of Parnall's pieces on one wall, an overly zealous consequence, one might say, of the luxury of space).

A perk of occupying a formerly industrialized warehouse is showing an underground artist like Ishmael. Ishmael is highly regarded for his pop art and monumental graffiti projects. He's an unlikely candidate for an established gallery, no matter how contemporary.

In Elder's case, however, Ishmael contributed a handful of paintings featuring muted colors, wispy shades, a kind of mottled texture. It's not what you expect until Elder explains how they were made: Ishmael painted them outside, letting the wind create thin and thick curves, then lit the paint on fire to blowtorch the canvas, creating raised bumps and burns. He darkened lines in deeper hues later.

Two big rooms dominate the Eye Level Warehouse. And both contain a number of huge paintings by Tyler Blanton, a native of Columbia and former ballet dancer who moved to Charleston after living in Venice for seven years. Blanton's work is stylistically dynamic — lush or minimalist impressions alternating with folk-like representations (one is of two chimps in what look to be Byzantine frocks while another shows Christ on the cross at Calvary). Each style shares a common trait: an intense feeling of movement.

For instance, as I was leaving, one of Blanton's new pieces (above) was being carried inside. It was big, perhaps five feet by three feet. Its subject was abstract: A guitar player accompanying a jubilant ballet dancer.

Her spine folds like a hinge. As her head is flung backwards, something thrusts from her chest in a spray of browns and whites. The object (it looked like a mop to me) is as ambiguous as the movement is forceful. And the painting had the power to get everyone outside the gallery excited, including Elder, who hopped boyishly with joy on seeing it for the first time.

"I just love contemporary art," he says.


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