VISUAL ARTS REVIEW The Other Side 

In Pursuit of Progress: A six-gallery collaboration takes art walkers to The Other Side

The Other Side
RLS Upstairs
Opening reception Oct. 5, 5-8 p.m.
On view through Oct. 18
151 E. Bay St.
Free
(843) 805-8052

There's nothing like healthy competition to get art galleries to upgrade their game and try new things. In a city like Charleston, the galleries are within a stone's throw of each other, and the owners practically bump into each other when they step outside. "When I walk down the street, I often meet one or two people from neighboring galleries," says Megan Lange, co-owner of Robert Lange Studios. Instead of hating on their potential rivals, Lange and fellow gallery owners have ganged up for a show at RLS Upstairs.

"It's less about selling the work," says RLS co-owner and artist Robert Lange, "more about giving a face to a common theme."

Themed shows like Big Works have been a hit at Robert Lange Studios in the past. Two Small Works exhibitions have highlighted the variety of styles that suit a pint-sized canvas. In a similar vein, the gallery's devoting its Upstairs space to 23 disparate artists this month for The Other Side. The difference this time is that many of those artists are represented by other contemporary galleries in a high-profile manner, and some of the gallery owners plan to be available on opening night to meet customers who would otherwise be less likely to see the artists' work or walk into their establishments.

"When we first opened three years ago," says Megan Lange, "there was a much smaller list of progressive galleries around here. There was us, Eva Carter, Mary Martin, and that was it. Eye Level Art wasn't there, Lese Corrigan wasn't either. Redux Contemporary Art Center wasn't going out into the community the way it does now."

The increase in contemporary galleries has created a small but firm shift in the market — enough, at least, to make The Other Side a viable proposition. Redux, Corrigan, and Eye Level are all involved, along with Rebekah Jacob Modern and West Ashley's Modernisme.

This definitely benefits Kristy Cifuentes, owner of Modernisme, enabling her and her artists to participate in Friday's downtown Art Walk. "It's more of an awareness-raising show than anything else," she says. "Contemporary art has been around for a long time, but it doesn't sell so well in Charleston, which is more of a traditional town. I don't think people moving to this city know that we're here."

So the proposition seems like a good one for all concerned; the Langes will cover all gallery expenses such as invites, refreshments, and advertising, with 30 percent of the profit going to RLS, 30 percent to the contributing gallery and 40 percent to the artist.

Cifuentes will contribute pieces by four of her artists: Toby Penney, Nathan Durfee, Julie Henson, and Glenn Friedel. "It's definitely challenging. A lot of the work is more progressive than usual."

"It's still classy," Robert insists. "Not shock value art." Instead, there's a good range of modern techniques, from Seth Curcio's screenprints to Jere Allen's striking figurative paintings. There's enough experimentation with medium, form, color, and subject matter to challenge viewers, but not so much that they'll run screaming from the gallery.

"Collectors are looking for work that's refined and finished," says Lese Corrigan, who will show examples of her own painting and two of the artists that she represents. "The South is known for its genteel and refined image. The bite is there, it's just underneath the surface. Southerners approach their subject matter or anyone with a little bit of honey."

One of Corrigan's artists is Manning Williams, an abstract artist who packs political commentary and shards of shapes into acrylics laid out like the pages of a comic book, complete with gutters and speech bubbles. While the layouts are easily identifiable, accessible elements, Corrigan contends that if viewers give the artwork some time and attention, they'll feel the edge. "You have to stand and go into it," she says. "People don't always take the time to do that."

When they do, they'll catch the nuances of Williams' social commentary; Nathan Durfee's zeitgeist-baiting narrative art; Lange's postmodern paintings-within-paintings, commenting on his current inspirations and thought processes; and John Duckworth's abstracts, literally blurring the line between photographic realism and abstract expressionism. All four artists are involved in The Other Side.

Encouraged by their peers, these artists are an indication of the strengthening of contemporary art in Charleston. There are three times the number of progressive galleries than were here a few years ago, thanks to the confidence of the owners and support from local and vacationing art enthusiasts.

There's a long way to go before Chucktown reaches a Santa Fe-level contemporary art scene. But the efforts of the Charleston Fine Art Dealers Association and the French Quarter Gallery Association, advertising in national magazines and drawing people to the city as an art destination, have definitely helped increase the number of visiting collectors. The tastes of these visitors vary from painfully conservative to refreshingly daring. However honey-coated, the increasingly accepted contemporary art provides more thoughtful work than traditional, charming Charleston fare — and opens avenues for artists like Seth Curcio who are honing a sharper edge. That's good for our art community and collectors alike.

"There are a lot of places selling pretty pictures," says Corrigan. "But you have to ask yourself why you'd want to spend your life with a painting. Pretty fades through time."


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